Husband, addict, father, skeptic. Now sixty―with years of sobriety under his belt―the celebrated author of The Los Angeles Diaries and This River returns with his most moving work yet.
Opening with the tragic tale of an elderly couple consumed by opioid addiction and moving through the horrors of a Las Vegas massacre to the loss of a beloved sponsor, these essays draw on Brown’s personal journey to illustrate how an individual life, in all its messiness and charm, can offer a blueprint for healing. From writing about finding a new path in life while raising three sons, to making peace with the family whose ghosts have haunted him, and helping the next generation of addicts overcome their disease, this haunting and hopeful book is a reinvention of the recovery story and a lasting testimony from the master of the modern memoir.
“The third panel in Brown’s masterwork triptych on addiction from youth to sixty, Apology to the Young Addict also accomplishes at last a staggeringly rare mercy―on the ghosts of memory, the ravages of disease, the brutal hypocrisies of religion, and finally―most shockingly―on himself.” ―Gina Frangello, author of Every Kind of Wanting and A Life in Men
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The Good Neighbors
When I think of a junkie, I see a skeleton-thin figure with abscesses up and down their arms, trembling and feverish, looking for that next fix. Or I picture the mug shot of a toothless meth-head with her face pocked with scabs. Life didn't start out this way for them, but their stories are remarkably similar, how they hit bottom, lose everything, and end up living off the streets. No, when I think of an addict, I don't for a second see a middle-class, retired elderly couple with two Subaru hatchbacks parked in the driveway of a quaint cottage in the resort town of Lake Arrowhead. When my wife and I move into the house next door, about two years before their accidents, Freddie welcomes us to the neighborhood with a batch of freshly made chocolate chip cookies. Neddy shakes my hand and tells me that if I need anything, anything, don't hesitate to ask. Over the course of the next few months we learn that they used to run their own real estate business, Freddie & Neddy's Mountain Homes, in the nearby town of Skyforest, and that Freddie, in her youth, played on our national volleyball team in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Neddy was a point guard at USC. They're a tall couple. I'd guess Freddie to be an inch or two shy of six feet, and Neddy an inch or two over that. I'd say they're pushing eighty, and they're healthy and fit, still going strong. They even invite us to go cross-country skiing when the snows arrive later that year. It's summer when we move in, but Paula and I, we're private people, and we politely decline the offer. Besides, we don't know the first thing about skiing.
I like to remember Neddy tending to his rose bushes and tomato plants. I like to remember watching him sweeping his driveway of the pine needles and leaves that fall from the trees of the forest that surrounds his home and mine. I like to remember Freddie working alongside him, dressing up for the occasion in bright yellow culottes and a matching yellow sleeveless blouse. Her long arms are tanned and thin and she always wears a wide-brim gardening hat with a leather chinstrap dangling about her neck. They both wear matching tan suede gloves.
During the first winter in our new house, when the snows come, Neddy is right on top of it. My wife enjoys teasing me. It could be the middle of a blizzard and she'll peer out the window and spot him, all bundled up in his parka, a knit cap and wool scarf, shoveling around Freddie's Subaru while I'm sitting on the couch watching TV.
"Look at that," she says. "He's digging his wife's car out. I don't see you out there doing that for me. Whatever happened to chivalry?"
She knows I always help, but I don't see the point in shoveling until the snow stops falling. No sense in doing the same job twice. That's what I tell her. Paula just shakes her head.
Good neighbors are quiet neighbors. They don't blast music all hours of the night. Or the TV for that matter. If they have a dog, as Freddie and Neddy do, a little schnauzer they rescued from certain death at the pound, they don't let it bark and bark, especially when there's nothing to bark at. Good neighbors are friendly and say hello if they happen to pass in their yards, taking out the trash, say, or bumping into each other at the grocery store, as is often the case in small towns like ours. Good neighbors are also respectful of each other's privacy, and if they fight, as it seems all couples do every now and then, even the elderly, they at least close the windows and doors, so you don't have to hear them shout and scream. In every regard, Freddie and Neddy score perfect marks, except, maybe, for that schnauzer, which does bark at nothing whenever they let it out on their deck. To be fair, we have two friendly, gentle pit bulls, the female a mix, and she's guilty of the same when we let her out on our deck.
Then, during the second winter in our new house, Freddie slips on their icy driveway as she's getting into her Subaru. She lands hard and shatters her left hip. My wife and I are at work when it happens, so I can only imagine her laying there on the freezing asphalt in excruciating pain, calling out to Neddy. Hopefully he hears her right away. I hate to think the poor woman has to wait long for help and that the ambulance arrives quickly. At the hospital they do a hip replacement on her, and after a couple of weeks, when she's able to get around using a walker, they send her home. I'm sure they also prescribe something for the pain. That's protocol during the recovery period. Tranquilizers might well be in the picture, too, if the patient has difficulty sleeping. To compound their misfortunes, while she's still recuperating, Neddy wrenches his back dragging their garbage cans down to the street for the trash collectors to pick up. Now if he bends over a particular way, or turns a particular way, it sends a paralyzing jolt of pain, almost like an "electric shock," he tells me, shooting from somewhere along his spine down through one leg. His is a watch-and-wait situation, as apparently the X-rays didn't reveal much, and I'm sure that in the meantime their doctor also prescribes him something for the pain, and maybe also something for sleep, until he heals up through physical therapy or undergoes some kind of corrective surgery. The latter is a last resort, as he doesn't want them slicing and dicing anywhere near his back. He says he's heard too many horror stories about people never being able to walk again because the doctors screwed up. He says he'd rather live with the pain than spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Fact is, they're in a bad way, so when Neddy calls early one cold evening, I don't hesitate to help.
"I hate to bother you," he says, "but I'm wondering if you could spare some firewood."
"Sure," I say.
"We just need enough to get us through the night. I ordered a cord last week, and now here it is, what, Wednesday, and they still haven't delivered it."
"Not a problem. We'll be right over."
"You're a lifesaver," he says. "I can't tell you how much we appreciate this."
The older cottages in the area, and theirs is one of the older ones, depend on cast-iron wood-burning stoves for heat, and you're in big trouble if you run short of wood. The only other way to keep your home warm is to turn on the gas burners and the oven of your cooking stove in the kitchen. Electric space heaters help, but not much. I lived in one of those cottages during leaner times, so I know this is an important matter, and right after I hang up I go to Logan's room. Logan is my middle son, almost sixteen. I tell him to put on his jacket, that we need to deliver some wood to the neighbors, and then I go to Nate's room. He's the youngest at ten, and though at this age he can't carry much, the idea is to make him a part of our chores, to train him, involve him.
Together we bring them enough wood to easily last a couple days. This is also when I notice that the stairs leading to their front door are rickety. Any one of the steps could give out at any time. It's a real hazard, these stairs. An accident waiting to happen. Neddy can hear us tramping through the forest to his back door and meets me on the porch. He has a twenty-dollar bill in his hand. He's dressed in baggy, striped pajamas. His thin gray hair looks like he just hurriedly combed it. It's slicked back, still damp with water.
The wood is heavy. I have it stacked in my arms up to my chin, the boys the same, but Neddy is blocking our way. I don't want him to have to carry it inside with his bad back.
"Excuse me," I say.
"Just set it there," he says, pointing to a spot next to the door.
"It's just as easy to set it inside," I say.
Neddy shakes his head.
"Freddie's not feeling so good. She's asleep on the couch. You can put it there," he says, pointing again to the same spot. "It won't kill me to drag in a few logs."
So that's what we do. I make sure the boys stack their loads of wood neatly on top of where I stack mine, and when we're done Neddy holds that twenty-dollar bill out to me.
"Here," he says.
I wave it off. I smile.
"Your money is no good here," I tell him.
"I'm sure the boys could use it."
He offers it to Logan, who knows better. Both my boys know better and it makes me proud. I may be a recovering alcoholic, and in the past, before I got clean and sober, something far from a good father, but I still like to take credit for doing a few things right.
"Be careful of these stairs," I tell him, "especially that bottom rung. It's just about rotted out."
"I know," he says. "The whole thing needs replacing. I got a bid and they want four thousand."
My father was a building contractor, and I bid quite a few jobs with him, so I can usually tell right away what's fair and what's not.
"Shouldn't be more than half that," I say, "including material."
"Can you do this kind of work?"
I think to myself, yes, I can do this kind of work, but I don't like doing it. On the other hand, I dislike people who try to take advantage of others, especially the elderly, and this is a case where I have a chance to be a good neighbor. It's also an opportunity to teach Logan something about carpentry. Nate is a little young to swing a hammer, let alone be near my father's old power saw, but he could bag scrap and old nails when we're through for the day.
Before I can answer, Freddie appears in the doorway behind him. She's wearing a sleeveless nightgown. Her eyes are glassy and her face is pale and her ordinarily tanned arms are chalky white and thinner than I remember. She looks at Logan. "Oh, how cute you are," she says, but she says it in a creepy sort of way. Neddy senses it, too, the tone. He glares at her. He raises his voice.
"Freddie," he says. "Go lie down. You shouldn't be walking yet."
"How old are you, young man?"
"Okay, okay," she says, and then she turns away, disappearing into the darkness of their cottage. It's odd, I think, because it's getting on toward night, it's hard to see now, but they still haven't turned on any lights.
That summer, when Logan is out of school and I'm off from teaching, we tear out the old staircase and build Neddy and Freddie a good sturdy one that should last them the rest of their lives. And we do it for less than half that ridiculous four thousand dollars they were quoted. It comes in at about five hundred dollars for lumber and material, and the rest is wages, most of which goes to Logan, as he's a teenager saving up for a car. What should've been a week-long job, however, turns into two, in part because my carpentry skills are rusty and I make a few mistakes along the way, and in part because Freddie, despite Neddy's urgings, has a habit of interrupting us. Sometimes it's to offer a Coke or a tall, cool glass of her freshly made lemonade, other times it's just to talk. She's always in that nightgown, and Neddy, for that matter, is always in those stripped pajamas unless he has errands to do, grocery shopping, say, checking the mail at the post office, or picking up those prescriptions that I'm beginning to think might be doing them more harm than good.
It's when he leaves that she does most of her talking. She never actually comes out of the house. Either she talks to us through the screen door with their schnauzer barking in the background, or from the open window of her bedroom in their loft, again looking at us through a screen. She seems starved for conversation, and though I can tell she's not always in her right mind, because she occasionally slurs her words or forgets what she's talking about and changes the subject in midsentence, I don't have it in me to cut her short. We learn, for instance, that she and Neddy were high school lovers. That they have a daughter, who, Freddie proudly proclaims, is married to a "very successful podiatrist" and lives in Hawaii. She tells me what she told me before about their real estate agency in Skyforest. Freddie & Neddy's Mountain Homes.
"You ever hear of us?"
I say I have, though it isn't true.
"We sold it to Century 21 when we retired. That was twenty-two years ago. Has it been that long? Yes," she says, as if to herself, "yes, it goes so quickly, all so quickly."
She's talking from behind the window screen, so I can't see her face clearly. It's really more like a shadow, and whatever meds she's taken are kicking in. Her voice has a dreamy, faraway quality to it.
"I was a real beauty," she says.
I don't know what to say other than the obvious. "You still are."
"Oh hush," she says to me. To Logan, she says, "I would've swept you off your feet, young man. Don't think for second I wouldn't have."
He smiles but it's a crooked, awkward smile.
The day before, after we'd finished working, he looked at me and shook his head. "What's with that old lady? She crazy or something?" And I told him no, not to worry, we'll be done with the job soon enough.
"I need to lie down now," she says.
This is late afternoon, not far from quitting time, and you can't build a staircase quietly. "You want us to call it a day?"
"No," she says. "The noise doesn't bother me, and I like when you cut the wood. The smell of it. The smell of fresh-cut lumber."
Some people can have a drink now and then. They can go out at night and get a little tipsy and enjoy themselves. It's no big deal. They can take it or leave it. Then there are others, like myself, who can't have a sip of the stuff without triggering a craving for more. And more. It's never enough for alcoholics, and the same goes for these meds so many doctors pass out. The usual suspects are Vicodin and Oxycodone for pain, Ambien and Restoril for sleep, and Xanax and Valium for anxiety, and it's some that can use them without a hitch, and others, like myself, who feel that if one pill takes away my pain and gives me a buzz, two or three will make me feel even better. Tolerance, however, is another matter. That applies straight across the board for everyone. What the prescribed dose initially does for you, inside of a few weeks, you'll need to double it to get the same effect. At some point, and it doesn't take long, maybe a couple of months, the original reasons for taking the meds gives way to something other than easing pain, anxiety, or sleeplessness. And refilling those prescriptions can get expensive.
I don't know what their finances are, but even with Medicare there are deductibles, and along with the regular bills we all have to pay every month, it can be hard when you're older and retired and living off a fixed income. The first things to go are the Subarus. One day I see them parked in the driveway as usual, then another day, when I happen to notice, they aren't there anymore. Neddy tells me they're in the shop getting worked on, but after a few weeks, when the cars still aren't there, I start to think that maybe they've been repossessed. Whatever the situation, it isn't long after the cars go that the calls start. Sometimes it's Freddie. Sometimes it's Neddy. I think they discuss trading off calls between themselves, so that neither one seems more of a pest, and weeks after their cars are gone, they stick to their story that they're still in the shop. It's sad, the lies we tell ourselves to save face, but I have no room to judge. I've done the same when the bottle had hold of me.
In the beginning, Paula and I try to be understanding. In the beginning, we try to be good neighbors. Paula picks up one of the first calls. We've just finished dinner and I'm at the sink rinsing off plates. She holds the phone against her ear with her shoulder while she wipes down the table with a dishrag.
"No," she says, "not at all. I have the day off. What time should I come by?"
When she hangs up, I ask her who called.
"Freddie again," she says. "She needs a ride to the doctor tomorrow."
Paula teaches at the same college I do, and she's on a three-day schedule with Tuesdays and Thursdays off. Tomorrow is a Tuesday, and though it's not exactly a free day, meaning she has stacks of papers to grade, she can still set her own hours to read them.
What Freddie doesn't tell her is that this doctor appointment is actually two appointments with two different doctors in Fontana and San Bernardino. Just the ride down the mountain is forty-five minutes each way. Combined with the visits themselves, and then having to go to two different pharmacies and wait some more to get her prescriptions filled, Paula's whole day is shot. She leaves at ten in the morning, hits traffic coming back, and doesn't get home until quarter after six. She's flustered when she comes through the door. Her face is red. She slams her keys on the breakfast counter and then tells me the story, more of a rant, really, than an account of the day.
"I thought her doctor was here on the mountain. I thought it would be a couple hours, three at the most. Now I have to stay up all night grading papers."
"Did she pay cash?"
"Did Freddie pay the doctors and pharmacies with cash?"
"Yeah, so what?" she says, as she heads upstairs to the bedroom. "Didn't you hear a single word I said? I lost the entire god-damn day."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Apology to the Young Addict"
Copyright © 2020 James Brown.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Good Neighbors 3
A Real Disease 33
The Call 47
This Little Girl 67
The Motions 73
The Last House on the Block 91
Leaving Las Vegas 115
Apology to the Young Addict 143
A God of My Understanding 153
This Little Boy 177
Bone by Bone 207