The following is a novel excerpt from the forthcoming novel, Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton (Burrow Press, 2018)
Althea and I are building sand castles in the beach volleyball court while Maggie outlines the Relapse Challenge to Shelly and Dolph on a dry-erase board by the pool. Tomorrow they will fight it out in front of a live studio audience to see who gets to stay in rehab.
I motion to Althea and she follows me towards the burned out Flamingo Cabin where we pretend to sort rocks.
Keeping my back to the cameras, I smooth a space in the ash near my rock pile and grab a stick. I write a message on the ground, Where is your car?
Wary of hidden microphones, I wipe out the message and, in a raised voice, start talking to Althea about recovery. “How do you feel about lighting the Flamingoes on fire?” I ask. “Now you’ve had time to reflect on your role in the incident.”
Althea writes Mall on the ground with her finger and breathes deep through her nose. “Well,” she says, “I feel quite sad. I realize it was not the Right Action. No living thing deserves to die at the hands of another regardless of my own fear of aviaries.”
Run for it? I write. I give her a look and add a piece of flint to my pile.
Now? She writes.
Tonight I write.
Looking apologetic she writes, NO. Certificate. School.
Wiping out the message, she says, “I feel like sorting these rocks is a great metaphor for how we have to sort through our feelings. This flat, smooth one represents my need to take personal accountability for my actions.”
Without a signed Wellness Certificate, Althea won’t be able to go back to college and finish her PhD in American Blues and Folk Performance. She’s currently on medical leave.
I feel the cameras zoom in. “The mineral composition of these rocks parallels our makeup as complex and fallible human beings,” I say. “We are all equal in God’s eyes, yet unique in the particulars of our fears.” Under my breath I whisper, “I have a plan.”
Althea writes, ?!
Soot collects on my hands and forearms and our hips touch as we edge closer to the pines. I clear a new spot in the ash and write, I Seduce Maggie.
Althea yells, “Fuck you,” and slaps my face.
Maggie lowers her pointer and the cameras turn towards us. Suddenly everyone is watching.
I give Althea my best, Jesus be fucking quiet, look. “I used to collect rocks and shells with my dad when we went on trips to the beach,” I say. “This was before I felt the urge to numb my feelings with chemicals.” Then I whisper, “She will sign our papers or I go to the press and say she took advantage of me in my fragile state.”
If Maggie rejects my idea, I have a contingency plan to get forged certificates down south. But I don’t tell Althea so as not to look like I haven’t thought this through and therefore need a contingency plan. Contingency plan or no, I don’t get the impression Althea is OK with my proposal. We keep crawling around looking for rocks. I write, OK, just 2nd base.
“Bullshit,” she says.
She picks up a burned piece of the Flamingo Cabin, whacks me with it and says, real loud, “This charred rubble represents the way my heart burns when people tell me things that make me feel undesirable after we made out in detox the other night.”
I grab her red curls and kiss her on the mouth. I know the cameras are all over this. Our viewer approval ratings must be soaring.
Althea smiles and the sun reflecting off her braces makes it look like she has a mouth full of glass. She hits me again.
“Quit it,” I say.
She flips her hair out of her eyes, grabs me and kisses me back.
“Maybe we can rebuild the cabin as a way to be of service,” I offer. “The rebuilding will represent our need to analyze and restructure our feelings and discern our role in the performances we put on for others. And second base hasn’t meant anything since junior high.”
Ash covers my arms to the sleeves of my T-shirt. Althea throws a rock in the pool. The look in her eyes shifts from dark to light and back again. I swallow hard. “Perhaps I have a spiritual solution to our problem and the willingness to sacrifice my own morality and touch the boob of an enemy so you and I can start a new way of life. Plus contingency plans,” I explain. “Just in case.”
“What?” She raises a piece of wood over her head. I put up my arms in defense and she hits me with a left to the gut. Doubled over, I grab her waist.
We roll around in the dust by the edge of the woods. She pins me and pushes up her sleeves, puts her palms on my shoulders. For the first time I see her arms up close, in the light. Cigarette burns, track marks, and white scars. The texture ripples under her tattoos. Cast in sunlight the imperfections in her face look so beautiful, I feel ashamed I couldn’t see it before.
By Ben Gwin