Sunday, March 30, 2014

LUCKY LENNY (Revised Version)

Genre: Drama/Dark Comedy 

Daniel Skye

My father once told me it’s a give and take world we live in.
It just tends to take a hell of a lot more than it ever gives. He shared these words of wisdom with me from his deathbed. When that monitor flat lined, so did my purpose in life.
          That was when my endless streak of bad luck commenced. Realistically, it’s the only form of luck I’ve ever truly been associated with. Actual, genuine luck has avoided me like some baneful plague my entire life.
Most guys don’t get fired for starting a contained fire at the company Christmas party. Then again, most guys don’t come home early to find their fiancé in bed with a Filipino dwarf named Rubin. And most guys don’t subsequently lose their spacious two-bedroom apartment to said fiancé and her new half-man.
Then again, most guys aren’t Leonard Howard.
          I’ve heard the best revenge is living well. Well, whoever said that can frankly go to hell. If you call being relegated to a windowless studio apartment living well, then I guess I’m doing pretty damn well for myself. My apartment is so small there’s not even enough room to pace back and forth. I have to go outside just to get away from myself for a few minutes.
My next-door neighbor thinks her apartment was converted into a night club and so she blasts techno music nonstop. With a strand of hope, she’ll be deaf within a year. She’s the one who lives on the left.
On the right is a Lithuanian immigrant with an affinity for action movies. Did I mention he loves watching them full blast? With the volume so loud, I can actually make out all the dialogue between rounds of gunfire and explosions. Today he’s watching True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And the girl who lives above me is a fitness buff and uses her apartment as a personal gym to do her workout. Sometimes it sounds like her and her treadmill is going to crash through my ceiling and squash me like a bug. And at this point, it would be the best thing that could happen.
I went upstairs to complain once. But she mistook my frustration for flirtation and left the door, came back a few seconds later brandishing a can of mace. I never bothered to knock again.
The other girl, the one who thinks she’s at an all-night rave, is beyond communication. I’m not sure what planet she came from, but I wish she’d go back. I asked her nicely to turn her music down. She responded by thanking me for a compliment about her blond hair. A compliment I never made to begin with. That’s when I knew she was a few beers short of a six-pack.
And I barely see the Lithuanian dude. If he wasn’t constantly swapping movies in his DVD player, I wouldn’t even know he was alive.
          Javed, my landlord, is always busting my hump about the rent. I make it my mission to avoid him like you would try to avoid a case of the clap. He can’t call me because my cell phone got turned off months ago. Apparently that can happen if you don’t pay your bill two months straight.
          Some days I think about leaving it all behind, packing up and starting fresh somewhere new. Then I remember I have less than five thousand dollars in my bank account and starting fresh clearly isn’t an option.
* * *
          Javed, my landlord shows up five. There are no windows to sneak out of, so it looks like he’s got me cornered.
I open the door after letting him knock for five minutes straight and he looks pissed off. I make up a lie about being in the shower even though my hair is dry as a bone. “No more excuses,” he yells with his thick accent that always makes me crack a smirk. “You pay rent now, motherfucker.”
          I dust off my checkbook and write him a postdated check for the rent. It’s dated three years from now. He pockets the check without noticing the date and scolds me some more with his peculiar, possibly Middle Eastern accent. “You nothing but bum. You can’t pay rent, can’t work. What good you for?”
          I wait until Javed is gone before laughing it up good at our brief encounter. Then I realize I don’t have much to laugh about. Eventually he’s going to discover that check is worthless and he’s probably going to evict me.
          Oh well, things can’t get much worse. If I wind up moving, I won’t have much to move. Most of my things were destroyed in storage when the place caught fire. The whole incident reeked of insurance fraud. But I did get compensated for the loss. Unfortunately all that money was spent on a lawyer and finding a new apartment when Fran gave me the boot.
All I have is a bed, a small wardrobe, and an old television that even the most desperate robber wouldn’t dare steal. I don’t even have a car anymore.
          I got nailed for DWI two weeks after the little incident at the company Christmas party. My office refused to press charges against me. But the incident, combined with the DWI, forced the judge to suspend my license. The judge also made attending AA meetings on a weekly basis a mandatory requirement. I wish they had given me ten thousand hours of community service instead. The people you meet at those kinds of meetings are the reasons judges exist in the first place.
          I check the mini fridge; find that it’s empty again. I have another meeting in two hours and I don’t feel like going grocery shopping. I don’t even know if I have the money to spare. I have another session with Kazarian tomorrow and he’s going to want the money upfront this time, seeing as how the last check bounced.
          My friends used to call me Lucky Lenny. I don’t know if they were being ironic, but if they saw me now, they’d probably cry. Or laugh. Lenny’s luck ran out like his fiancé, and it’s not coming back.
* * *
          There’s an old joke my father used to tell me. “Doctor gives a guy six months to live. He can’t pay his bills, so the doctor gives him another six months.” In my father’s case, the doctor gave him two years at best.
          My old man refused treatment at first, until the cancer spread through his lungs and restricted his breathing. Out of fear of it spreading to the rest of his body, he reluctantly signed on for chemo and radiation.
          He went through a range of side effects caused by the treatments. His hair gradually fell out. He lost a considerable amount of weight. His appetite diminished. Some days he was sluggish and dead to the world. Other days he was energetic and still full of zest.
          We spent the last six months crossing off every notch on his bucket list. Visit the champagne room of a strip club. Free the animals from a local zoo. Go streaking. Build a fort. Visit Niagara Falls. Eat an entire crave case at White Castle. Take a ride in a hot air balloon. Go to a bar just to start a fight. Yes, these were all things on my dad’s bucket list.
Though, we did get arrested for our stunt at the zoo. Thankfully the zookeeper and the owners refused to press charges since nobody was hurt and no real damage was done to the property. I can’t say the same for the guy who had monkey shit smeared all over his windshield.
          Eventually the chemo and radiation took its toll and dad was reduced to a virtual zombie. He didn’t eat. Some days, he rarely even spoke. Just sat there and stared off into space. That’s when I knew his time was dwindling.
The day he finally let go, a wave of relief washed over me. I took solace in the fact he wasn’t suffering anymore.
I wish I could say the same for myself.
My meeting starts around seven o’clock. In the real world, my name is Leonard Howard, or Lenny to those who know me best.
But in the AA world, I’m Rico. Horrible choice, I know. As a flabby thirty year old Caucasian, I look about the furthest thing from a Rico. But I did it as a joke the first night I was here, and then I realized I was stuck with it.
Everyone helps themselves to a cup of coffee and munches on stale doughnuts brought by Frank, the alcoholic who ran down his neighbor when he crashed through his fence and blew a 0.10 on the Breathalyzer.
Frank’s been sober for eight years. Five of those years were spent behind bars for vehicular manslaughter.
As everybody pulls up a chair and we sit in a semi-circle, the first timers all take turns standing up to introduce themselves.
A man in a red baseball cap stands up.
His name is Jimmy, and he’s an alcoholic.
Hi Jimmy.
Another man stands up, pale and emaciated. His name is Gary, and he’s an alcoholic.
Hi Gary.
Among this group of degenerates and lowlifes, I spot a new face. Since it’s her first time around, she gets up and introduces herself as Anna. Like me, she is here by order of the court.
I’ve just laid eyes on her and she already drives me wild. It might be the shoulder-length red hair. There’s something about red hair that always lights my fire.
Or it could be that she slightly resembles Fran, my ex-fiancé.
Like Fran, Anna has fair skin, a slim hourglass figure. But her hair is a much darker shade of red. The glitter of her mascara makes her eyes appear to twinkle every time she blinks. It’s almost hypnotizing.
I scan both hands for a wedding ring.
She’s single. I mean, at least she’s not married. If she has a boyfriend, he’s not here to support her. And that’s how it sort of goes for people in the program. Aside from our sponsors, we’re truly alone in this struggle.
As the meeting eventually comes to a close, I time my exit so that Anna and I reach the door at exactly the same time. My lips part and I try to speak, but no words escape.
My throat is dry and I can fell the air leaving my lungs rapidly. Not again, I think. Not another panic attack.
Outside, I lean against the wall to catch my breath and she steps ahead of me without even noticing and disappears into the night.
Five minutes later, I catch my breath and regain my composure. By then, Anna is long gone with everybody else.
This was just her first meeting, I remind myself. She’ll be here tomorrow again. You’ll have another chance. You just need to get control.
* * *
          The next morning, I go to see Doctor Kazarian for my latest session. The lobby receptionist asks for two hundred dollars upfront as I anticipated. I had stopped at the bank on my walk over and withdrew three hundred – two for the session, one for the medication and groceries.
          Kazarian knows I don’t have an insurance plan, so he writes me generic scripts for Xanax. They cost around thirty dollars a bottle for ninety pills.
          Breathe. He repeats the word over and over, droning on like some insipid song playing on a continuous loop. Breathe, relax. Breathe, open your lungs. Breathe, take in the air. Breathe in deep, and breathe out all the negative energy.
          These breathing exercises are supposed to help with my anxiety attacks. But they’re even worse than the dope he prescribes to me.
          I loathe the concept the chemical dependency. It seems like half the population is dependent on some form of medication to carry them through the day. But I still take them because A. He tests me to see if I am, and B. I hate to admit it, but they do help.
          The anxiety attacks were something I experienced shortly after high school graduation. It was the middle of summer, and a buddy and I were stuck in a traffic jam at the core of a hundred degree heat wave. The heat wave had started on a Monday and reached its peak that Thursday, as we were caught in the center lane of Sunrise Highway.
          As traffic moved forward and we drove under a narrow overpass, I suddenly froze and my foot barely managed to find the brake. I couldn’t breathe. I felt trapped inside a tiny box. All the air had been sucked from my lungs in seconds. My chest was tighter than a snare drum and it felt like someone had their boot pressed on the back of my throat.
          I managed to pull over and passed the wheel on to my buddy. He drove the rest of the way. I saw a shrink, took some pills, and after a while it went away. Or so I thought.
          The attacks started again, not too long after I got shit canned at my office.
          Kazarian’s face is pale and stiff as an ironing board. His green mackerel eyes are cold and lifeless. He speaks his words slowly and with such apathy it makes my stomach churn. He has the exuberance of a life-size cardboard cutout. Put a twist-tie in his hair and he could be a loaf of white bread.
          There’s a brown stain on the lapel of his tweed blazer. He keeps telling me to breathe, relax, and take in all the air. And all I keep thinking about is how unprofessional it is for him to be walking around in this soiled jacket. I’m tempted to say something about it, but I let it slide as Kazarian shifts into the therapy portion of our session.
          “How are you feeling today?” he asks.
          “Better,” I nod.
          “And you’ve been sleeping okay?”
          “Yes,” I say, trying to keep my answers vague and short.
          “Because you look exhausted.”
          “Amorous neighbors,” I chuckle nervously. “They’re newlyweds. They keep me up a lot at night with all the noise they make.”
          “I had that problem once,” Kazarian shares casually, as if I cared to know. “Had to move eventually.”
          “Well, I’m not in the position to move right now.”
          “How is the medication helping?”
          “It helps a lot,” I say through gritted teeth. Another lie. But my lies are more than transparent to a man like Kazarian. He’s trained to see through the bullshit, and that’s about all I ever feed him. Lies and bullshit.
          “I hate it when you lie,” he says concisely.
          “Why, because it’s your job?” I fire back.
          “I don’t lie,” Kazarian defends himself. “I ask people questions, I make observations, and I try to help them.”
          “Some job you’re doing with me. I’m wondering why I sought help in the first place.”
          “It doesn’t matter why you sought help. What matters is you realized that you needed it. Now if the medication isn’t helping, we can try an alternative.”
          “No, it’s fine,” I say, trying to sound sincere. “I’d rather stick with Xanax then something I’ve never tried before.”
          “Very well. Lenny, would you like to talk about the fire?”
          “What’s there to talk about? I was drunk, I had just lost my fiancé.”
          “You still started a fire in your office.”
          “It was a contained fire. Just a few shredded papers inside a garbage pail. Nobody got hurt.”
          “And the papers just happened to be important documents your boss was expecting on his desk that week?”
          “What can I say,” I shrug. “It was there.”
          “Lenny, why did you really start the fire?”
          I sigh. “You know…I thought I had lost control that day. But I realize I lost control way before that. I think that day was the first time I was actually in control. I think in a way, the fire helped me free a part of myself. It helped me get some of that control back.”
          “So you’re saying the fire was cathartic?”
          “I don’t know what I’m saying. But I was a slave to that job for so many years. It just felt time to move on.”
          “And that was your way of moving on?”
          “If you want to think of it that way.”
          “Where are you working now?”
          “I help out a few days at my friend Jeff’s comic store.”
          “And how’s that? Better than the office?”
          “The job is great. The pay, not so much.”
          This bland conversation progresses for another thirty or so minutes, until Kazarian looks down at his watch and says, “Time’s up.”
          “Same time next month?” I ask, and he nods as he writes me out a new prescription slip. I accept the slip and he dismisses me, telling me that his receptionist will pencil me in for an appointment next month.
          I walk to Morton’s Pharmacy after the session, hand in my script. It takes twenty minutes to fill. I still have an hour to spare before my next AA meeting.
          As I walk down Merrick Road, I twist the cap off the prescription bottle and swallow one Xanax dry as if I’m swallowing my own pride.
          At the grocery store, I stock up on bread, eggs, milk, cheese, peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti. Whatever I can afford.
It’s not much, but it will suffice. Between the medication and constant self-loathing, I don’t eat nearly as much as I used to.
          My shit-box apartment is five blocks away from the grocery store. I peek around the corner to make sure Javed isn’t waiting for me. He isn’t.
          Inside, I pack all my groceries away and listen to my neighbor blast Justin Bieber while the other watches Apocalypse Now at full volume. I reach for my script and twist the cap, then have second thoughts.
          What am I doing here? This is no way to live. Dodging landlords. Downing pills to deal with the pressure. Attending meetings packed with recovering degenerates.
          This isn’t me. This isn’t what I used to be. And shit, I think I have another meeting tonight. And I think it’s my turn to bring the doughnuts.
          But right now, I’m thinking fuck the doughnuts. And fuck these pills.
          I walk to the bathroom, tilt the bottle, and drop the remaining eighty-nine pills into the toilet. I breathe in deeply, and with one quick flush, I exhale and watch all my dependency swirl away and flow down the drain.
          I’ll call Kazarian in the morning and tell him I won’t be back.
* * *
          I show up at the meeting empty-handed and find out it wasn’t my turn to bring the doughnuts after all.
          I also see that Anna has returned. This time she doesn’t say anything. Just watches quietly as everyone else goes around introducing themselves, sharing sob stories.
          As the meeting comes to an end, I feel the anxiety stirring inside me. But I stand up, take a deep breath, and exhale. I brush it aside with ease and pull myself back to reality.
          I approach her with an attempt at confidence. I look at this opportunity as a last ditch effort at turning my luck around. And I have literally nothing to lose at this point.
          “The name’s Lenny,” I introduce myself. For this occasion, it sounds better than Leonard. Or Rico.
          “Anna,” she says back.
          “You’re new here. I saw you the other night. Got a sponsor?”
          “Not yet,” she shook her head, her dark red hair waving from side to side.
          “Maybe I could be your sponsor. We could grab a cup of coffee sometime and talk if you’d like.”
          “I honestly hate coffee,” she admits. “I just drink it here because that’s all they serve. It tastes like liquid chalk to me.”
          “I hate coffee too,” I say, relieved that I won’t have to down more of that disgusting crap. “You know, you’re not the only one the courts made come here.”
          “Oh yeah?” she smirks. “What’d you do?”
          I hesitate for a second before I confess, “I started a fire at my office.”
          “Awesome,” she laughs and gives me a swift pat on the back. “I stole my boss’s car. Guy was a total perv. He always used to hit on me and say the most inappropriate things. Tried to grab my behind a couple of times. I smacked him good for that once.”
          “If I’m not being too straightforward, how’d you like to go out to dinner with me sometime?”
          “I could go for a drink instead,” she smiles and takes my hand.
Gripping her hand loosely, I smile back and I think to myself, maybe starting fresh is an option after all.

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