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Save Your Own

by Elisabeth Brink

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618871933
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/08/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 290
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

ELISABETH BRINK worked in publishing, counseling, and high-tech marketing before earning a Ph.D. in American literature. Since then she has taught writing and literature at Harvard, Tufts, and Boston College. Her fiction has garnered her fellowships in Prague and St. Petersburg, and her stories were nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the late Andre Dubus. She lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

One

Let me begin by describing my physical self. I am a full-grown woman who
looks like a ten-year-old boy, and not even a very handsome or cute one at
that. At four feet nine inches, I stand in an awkward relation to most
countertops, and there are chairs from which my legs will exuberantly swing.
The features of my face are pinched and asymmetrical. I have no figure worth
mentioning, my bones are thin, and my pale hair frizzes out from my head
like cotton candy that has been pulled as far as possible from its cardboard
cone. The truth is that I am quite remarkable in my unattractiveness. I use
the word remarkable in its most literal sense, as in able to be remarked upon
or provoking notice or calling forth attention. I doubt that I shall ever be
allowed to forget that nature endowed me with not even one of the charming
physical attributes with which the human female has been attracting friends
and lovers for thousands of generations. Apparently, it is a once-in-a-blue-
moon kind of thing to have been so genetically unlucky so consistently,
without being actually deformed.

My mind, thankfully, has more to recommend it.
The following events took place in the fall of 1984, when I was a
graduate student in my fourth year at Harvard Divinity School. My goal that
year was simple: I was to write my dissertation. The work went smoothly at
first. I submitted a detailed prospectus at the end of April, according to
schedule. Then, for reasons that will soon be clear, the process stalled. An
unproductive May became a futile June that stretched into a wasted summer.
I spent the empty monthsloitering in coffee shops, dozing on park benches,
wandering through grocery stores, getting lost in art museums, and dawdling
in the back rows of planetary shows and public lectures — often while
entertaining vivid, highly nuanced sexual fantasies that featured either a man
with greeny-brown eyes whom I had crashed into on my bike over two years
before or a handsome waiter named Ravi who had served me keema mattar
once at an excellent Indian restaurant I could not afford to frequent as much
as I would have liked. (I was a twenty-five-year-old virgin, and I was
determined to shed this sad and troubling condition as soon as humanly
possible.)
A slender fellowship provided by the Zephyr Foundation was my
only income at the time. These fellowships, which also covered tuition and
fees, were awarded annually to three or four carefully selected students who
showed exceptional promise. They were coveted prizes; the fact that I had
been a recipient for three consecutive years had made me an object of the
starkest envy among my highly competitive colleagues. The continuation of
the fellowship from one year to the next, however, was by no means assured.
One needed to be progressing at a rather accelerated rate through the
several stages of study that culminated in the Doctor of Philosophy degree,
and one needed to demonstrate the highest level of scholarly achievement at
each stage. Even when those conditions were met, the Committee for
Graduate Studies (hereinafter referred to as "the Committee") might simply
change its mind and bestow the fellowship on a more favored student.
Given the quiescent — or shall I say, comatose — state of my
academic affairs in the fall of 1984, I was flooded with dread but not really
surprised one morning in late September to find that an official-looking white
letter had fl uttered into my Divinity School mailbox. It read,

Dear Ms. Gillian Cormier-Brandenburg:
The Committee for Graduate Studies regrets that starting in
January the Zephyr Foundation Fellowship that funds your monthly stipend
will be revoked. Should you wish to continue your graduate studies, tuition
and fees for the spring semester are payable in full by the first of the year.
Sincerely yours,
Dr. Henry T. Trubow
Dean of Graduate Studies
My thoughts flew immediately to Thomas More, whose head was
severed from his body by legal decree in 1535. I often wondered what he'd
thought and felt as he approached the chopping block and saw the
executioner's blade. I was coming closer than ever to imagining his suffering
when my reverie was broken by a neatly groomed, pale-skinned Methodist
who stepped into my peripheral vision.
"Bad news?" he asked unctuously. He would not have been the
least bit sorry if it was.
"Not at all," I replied airily, balling the letter in my fist.
He took a big stack of mail out of his assigned slot. "How's your
dissertation going?"
"It's been a stimulating adventure."
He flipped through several notes and announcements, picked out
a 5" x 7" card with colorful balloons around the rim, and smiled delightedly. It
was clearly a party invitation — the design was rather childish, I thought. For
a minute I feared he would ask whether I had been invited.
"You must be almost finished by now." He slipped the invitation
into his jacket pocket and stuffed the rest of his mail into his backpack.
"I'll be done soon," I assured him.
As soon as he was gone, certain words began to reverberate:
stipend will be revoked . . . tuition and fees . . . payable in full. I had less than
one hundred dollars in my checking account, and no savings. My parents
were college professors; they couldn't afford full tuition either. What was
more, they were atheists who disapproved of my interest in religion, a subject
they considered at best squishy and ornamental, and at worst an impediment
to scientific progress and a threat to global political stability. Those were two
good reasons not to ask them for help. The third was this: I had no stomach
for the kind of criticism — thorough, incisive, accurate, perpetual — an
unrenewed fellowship would provoke.
Dean Trubow's office was just down the hall. A few steps took me
to his open doorway.
"Oh, it's you, Gillian. Come in. And close the door behind you," he
said.
Altogether unexpected at a citadel for higher learning, not to
mention a sanctum for the story of God, was Henry T. Trubow, who chain-
smoked menthol cigarettes and had a laminated I'D RATHER BE TROUT
FISHIN' bumper sticker affixed to the front of his enormous mahogany desk.
I pressed the letter into its proper shape and laid it face up on his
blotter. "I would like you to reconsider this decision."
He sighed and leaned back in his chair. "It's not my decision.
It's the Committee's."
"Of which you are a member."
"Of which I am one member."
"You could persuade the others."
He pulled a squashed pack of Salems out of his pocket. "Have a
seat."
I sank into a leather chair that by itself could have funded the rest
of my education.
"Since your prospectus was approved in April, you've missed
three deadlines in a row. Brass tacks, Gillian: You're not Zephyr material
anymore."
"I'm due for a breakthrough. I think I'll be having one soon."
"That's what you told me the last time we talked."
I sighed raggedly, averting my eyes.
"Tell me you have a chapter. Tell me you have an outline at least."
I glared at the bumper sticker, detesting its coy apostrophe.
Dean Trubow slowly lit a cigarette, and his eyes narrowed in the
swirl of smoke. "It's worse than that, isn't it? You don't have a methodology."
"I do have a methodology. I told you already. My plan is to find
and interview nonreligious individuals who have had true and lasting spiritual
experiences. From the case histories so compiled, I intend to analyze the
psychology and spirituality of what I am calling the 'secular conversion
experience.' "
"So what's the holdup?" he asked.
"It's just that . . . well, it's been kind of hard to find truly converted
nonreligious individuals. By definition they don't go to churches, mosques, or
temples. And no one has answered my ads in the newspaper."
"Have you ever wondered whether these people — and this
phenomenon of 'secular conversion,' as you call it — actually exist?"
"Of course they exist," I said staunchly. But I was beginning to
doubt.
He laid his cigarette in an ashtray. "Gillian, listen carefully to what
I'm about to say: Your writing has stalled because your topic is bunkum."
Bunkum? I thought I knew all the words in the English language,
but this little one must have slipped by me. I guessed it to be United States
slang, probably early nineteenth century, possibly from the same hinterland
where Dr. Trubow himself originated.
"Nonsense, poppycock," he clarified.
I actually liked Dean Trubow. When he demolished a student, it
was fast and clean. The other faculty members took a lot longer and left a
bloody mess.
He continued, "You ought to throw away that foolish topic and get
back to doing the kind of scholarship that will get you a job."
"I understand your concern, Dean Trubow," I replied evenly. "My
topic is unusual. But I can't possibly dispose of it because I am convinced in
my marrow that the secular conversion experience holds the key to our
species' survival. You see" — and here I leaned forward to make my point —
"secular conversion obviates religion! It proves that one doesn't have to
belong to any particular group or hold any particular belief to enjoy all the
benefits of religious life. A scholar who could find a simple, reliable method
for demonstrating the validity of a secular conversion experience would in
effect be ushering the human race to the brink of an unprecedented
possibility. By working backwards from the conversion event, we could
formulate a new, one-size-fits-all, experience-based, anti-religion religion!"
"And what on earth would be the sense in that?" Dean Trubow
fairly bellowed.
I sat back, chagrined by his tone. "Isn't it obvious? The global
community is emerging. Different religious sects are finding themselves in
closer proximity. Greater and harsher conflicts are inevitable. A secular
religion would render wars, slaughter, and tribal prejudices completely
unnecessary. It would save us before we killed each other off!"
Dean Trubow let out a low whistle. "That's one heck of a leap. But
I have to give you credit. In all my years of teaching, you're the first graduate
student I've had who thought a dissertation could change the world, much
less save it. You're not afraid of big ideas. I like that in a scholar."
I blushed furiously, as I did whenever I received a compliment, and
the embarrassment of blushing furiously made the temperature of my cheeks
rise even higher, so that my face must have looked positively
inflamed. "Thank you very much, Dean Trubow."
"But I'm willing to bet that's not the only reason you're so excited
about this topic."
"Excuse me?"
"Look, I respect your noble purpose. It's always heartening to see
idealism in the young. But I've been in this business long enough to know
that a student usually has a personal reason for picking a topic. They don't
always want to tell you about it, but it's there."
"I don't think I do," I answered. Having a personal reason had never
even occurred to me. It was obvious he wanted me to have one, though, so I
said, "But I'm sure I'll find a personal reason if I keep going, Dean Trubow.
Look, the topic's not my problem.
What's holding me up is finding suitable subjects. If I could just
locate a dozen nonreligious people who've had deep and lasting spiritual
experiences, I'm sure this project would take flight."
He sighed. I could see that he wasn't completely convinced, but
he decided to relent. "Try a halfway house," he said.
"A what?"
"There's one right here in Cambridge. It's for drug addicts and
alcoholics. A friend . . . well, a child of someone I know went there. I forget
what it's called. But don't just waltz in spouting academic claptrap and
expect to get anything done, Gillian. These are people who've been battered
by their passions and by life. You have to spend time with them and earn
their trust before they'll be likely to share their deep inner lives with you."
"Are you suggesting I go to this place and just linger in the
hallway chatting?"
He shrugged. "Work there, maybe. Get a job."
"Dean Trubow, I'm in a high-pressure graduate program. I can't
afford the time!"
He gave me a pitying look. "What exactly have you been doing
with your time?" He stood, signaling the end of the interview.
"What about my Zephyr?"
He paused, sighed, stubbed out his cigarette. "Look, I'll tell you
what." He consulted a calendar on his desk. "This is Monday, September
twenty-fourth. I'll give you till October thirty-first. If I don't see some progress
from you by then — either a first chapter or a few completed interviews from
residents at the halfway house — your fellowship will most certainly be
revoked."
I stood up and almost yelled, You want me to do in one month
what I haven't been able to do in five? But I bit my lip. "Thank you, Dean
Trubow."
"If you were anyone else, I wouldn't give you another chance.
I'm only doing this because you're one of our best students and
you've got your heart set on this thing. But I can't say I'm optimistic, Gillian.
Secular conversion experiences, a new secular religion — it still sounds like
bunkum to me."


Pretty, plump Gretchen O'Neil sat beneath a halo of strawberry hair. "Your
academic qualifications are impressive," she said, though with a small furrow
disturbing her brow. On the desk behind her, the string of a tea bag
descended from a handmade ceramic mug. From where I was sitting, I could
read the tag. INFUSION OF SERENITY.
"Yes," I said.
She leaned back in her chair, folding dainty hands over my
curriculum vitae. "But what I'm really interested in is who you are as a
person."
"As a person," I repeated. What a pointless, pedestrian phrase! In
different circumstances, I might have chirped, As opposed to what? But since
any chance I had of becoming a scholar seemed to depend on my acing this
interview, I merely straightened my wool vest and tried to imagine what the
perfect candidate for a job in the social services would say.
"I guess you could say that I . . . I . . . want to help people," I said.
Gretchen smiled encouragement. "Why?"
Why? This question was worse than the last! Res ipsa loquitur, I
wanted to say. The thing speaks for itself. But I bit my tongue and smiled as
best I could. "Well, because . . . some people need to be helped."
Gretchen nodded sagely. "And what brings you here?"
What indeed. Responsibility House was a state-subsidized
residential treatment program for female alcoholics and drug addicts. About
half of the twelve residents had formerly been housed at the women's
correctional facility in Framingham. They were undoubtedly ignorant,
frightening, and unsavory; the wage was probably minimum; and the duties
were likely to be thankless and dull.
Gretchen looked at me with innocent expectancy as I tried to
formulate an answer. The wall clock ticked. The tea cooled. The smile on my
face was becoming too arduous to maintain. Finally I had to admit to myself
that I was simply incapable of fabricating the large number of lies that would
be necessary if I were to continue pretending to be altruistically motivated.
"I, ah . . . Actually, I'm here to do research for my dissertation."
I cringed, imagining (or hoping?) that she would see how
completely uninterested I was in the job for its own sake.
"Mmm. What's it about?"
I groaned inwardly. Experience had taught me that talking about
one's dissertation to nonacademics was a bad idea. The vast majority of
listeners were likely to find one's topic, whatever it was, excruciatingly boring
and would tune out posthaste. A scholar probably had between ten and forty
seconds to get a few salient points across before his or her audience was
drifting in a private sea of mental distractions. But what choice did I have,
under the circumstances?
So, rising to the challenge, I defined a conversion experience
as "the direct sensory apprehension of a supernatural power followed by the
complete and lasting reorganization of the life and mind on a new and morally
higher plane." I mentioned a few famous examples from well-known religious
texts, then went on to describe a secular conversion experience as the same
kind of thing happening outside an established religious tradition. Having
covered this ground in what I believe was half a minute, I took a much-needed
breath and looked closely at Gretchen to see whether she was following. Her
eyes were red-rimmed and, to my horror, she acted exactly like a typical
undergraduate by lifting two fingers to pursed lips in an attempt to stifle a
yawn.
"Excuse me," she said. "With the shortage of help I've been
working a lot of overtime. Please go on."
"Anyway, Ms. O'Neil, my fundamental research questions are
these: Do secular conversion experiences share the features of traditional
conversion experiences, or are they different in identifiable ways? Are there
recurring settings, themes, and narrative patterns? Are they as profound and
lasting as the conversions recorded in religious texts? And, the most
provocative question, which I'm sure you've guessed by now, is this: Can
they be induced?"
Gretchen had innocent blue eyes, a button nose, and a sweetly
bowed mouth. She screwed these features into a painful-looking
squint. "Responsibility House?" she prompted.
"Yes, yes, I'm getting to that," I said, barely able to conceal my
annoyance. As hard as I tried to reconcile myself to intellectual apathy, it
was always wounding. "I thought about these issues night and day, but as
exciting as the possibilities were" — I almost added, "to me as a person" —
"I began to feel hopeless. A thorny methodological problem stood in my way.
Where would I find a goodly number of nonreligious converted people? I'll be
honest, Ms. O'Neil: For the last five months I've made little headway, and I
was beginning to wonder whether my goal was even attainable. But
something kept telling me that it could work, that the answer was close at
hand.
"It just so happens that the laundromat I bicycle to has your flyer
taped in the window along with other community announcements.
I must have read it dozens of times — Responsibility House, a
Halfway House for Chemically Dependent Women — without thinking
anything of it. Then everything came together in a big click. I fell off my bike
and just stared at the sign. It was like Saint Paul falling off his horse!"
Gretchen looked a little startled.
I think I may have looked startled, too. Such a colorful lie popping
out of my mouth was a bit of a shock, especially when I had committed
myself to honesty moments before. But what kind of applicant would admit
she'd been all but ordered to the interview by her dissertation advisor on pain
of losing her fellowship? And isn't it true that including dramatic events such
as falling off horses in one's stories often does recapture an audience's
flagging attention? A similar effect can be achieved by varying body position
and tone of voice.
I leaned forward and continued in a stage whisper, "Ms. O'Neil,
I've heard that there are women inside these secular walls for whom the
miracle of salvation is not an empty phrase but a living, breathing reality.
They come here from prison or the streets and achieve sobriety. They mend
their family relations and become useful citizens of the commonwealth. And
they begin speaking of spiritual things. How does that happen, I wonder?"
Gretchen placed a pink finger on her tender cheek and
mused, "Well, we do encourage positive behaviors."
"Whatever the catalysts are, the change in lifestyle is dramatic, is
it not?"
"I guess you could say that," she admitted.
"And wouldn't you agree that the validity of the conversion is easy
to determine? Either your residents maintain sobriety or they do not. Either
they become workers and worthy citizens or they return to lives of thievery
and prostitution. Either they exude peacefulness and serenity or they blame,
rationalize, and complain the way they they always did. Don't you see? It's
so simple! The proof is in the pudding, so to speak."
"Does this mean you're going to write a book about us?"
"A dissertation first. A book later. I hope." I almost blushed,
imagining myself as a published author.
Gretchen looked away. "This conversion thing you're talking
about . . . it's not like flicking a switch."
"Of course not. I'm sure it's nothing like that," I said, backpedaling
quickly. I was worried that I had gone too far. I sometimes forget that
religion — like money, sex, and power — is a subject best approached
obliquely.
Gretchen reached behind her for the cup of tea. "Do you have any
idea how unusual a candidate you are?"
"I imagine I'm not the typical applicant."
"I almost always hire social workers, young ones, just graduated,
but they don't last long. Six months is average. Once they figure out that
they can get third-party payments for private addictions counseling, they're
gone. They usually walk out in the middle of a shift." She made a snorting
noise, which surprised me. There was something incongruous about a sound
like that emanating from her lightly freckled face.
"You won't have to worry about me," I assured her. "I'm very
reliable. I don't even take sick days. I was the only student in my hometown
who had perfect attendance through eight years of elementary school and
four years of high school." This was very close to being true.
"The job pays minimum wage." Her face twisted into a childish
grimace of apology.
"I expected no more."
"Good. I'll start you with the easy stuff — house supervision and
some office work. No special training required. We'll see how you manage
with that."
"Thank you very much, Ms. O'Neil."
"Call me Gretchen."
I'm not sure which emotion was primary in that moment — relief
that the interview was almost over, pride in my rousing success, or terrible,
wrenching dread. You see, I had never actually worked before. In fact, I had
spent most of my life shunning social activities of any kind. While other kids
were waitresses or sales clerks, I enrolled in special summer courses or
independent studies. Even as a youngster, I preferred the air-conditioned
library, with its exquisite smell of leather and dust, to the beach or summer
camp.
But a timid, cerebral temperament wasn't the only cause of my
social discomfort; there was a darker reason, too. All through childhood and
adolescence, day after day and year after year, I had withstood barrages of
jeers and taunts directed at my body and mind. The insults were sometimes
physical as well as verbal: I was pushed into mud puddles over and over
again. In the cafeteria, I was a repeat target of pudding-followed-by-popcorn
throwers. My labia majora were pinched in the locker room, a picture of my
naked body next to my name was spray-painted on the field house, and my
glasses were stolen so often I carried a spare pair. Though I tried to hide the
damage, even from myself, this treatment had occasionally pushed me from
the realm of shy bookishness into an abyss of terror and profound aversion to
other human beings. I'm sorry to say that, even in my adult life, there were
times when I simply was not capable of social interaction at all.
"When would you like me to start?" I asked, trying to cover the
quaver in my voice with a look of bright optimism. I was hoping for several
weeks to psychologically prepare.
"Right away, actually. Tomorrow night." Gretchen swirled in her
chair and began rummaging through a messy file drawer. "I just hope I can
find a W-4 before then."

The next afternoon at 4:45 I firmly set my jaw and rode my bike down
Massachusetts Avenue. I turned at Summer Street and there, at the end of a
row of Depression-era three-deckers, every one some shade of pukish green,
stood Responsibility House.
It was a rambling, pukish pink, three-story Victorian surrounded
by a sickly waist-high hedge and a tiny balding lawn. Real estate in
Cambridge being what it was, it might have sold for a hefty sum to an
upwardly mobile couple who would have painted it a happy medley of
coordinating colors and lovingly restored the bow windows and leaded glass,
the carved posts and curved railings. As the house was owned by the state of
Massachusetts and dedicated to purely functional purposes, however,
maintenance was kept to a minimum. The concrete walkway was cracked
and lumpy, and the brick foundation had sunk unevenly into the ground. The
wide front porch sagged, and a north-facing turret seemed to have only a
precarious relationship to the rest of the house. An added-on side room had
all the allure of a hitchhiker's thumb.
Gretchen O'Neil met me in the bare-bones kitchen. A short, round
woman in black was tending a steaming pot, and a few other residents —
recently returned from work, I supposed — were milling about. I glanced at
them nervously. One of them kept her head down so that her dirty hair fell
forward and camouflaged her face. Another woman, many-ringed hand on hip,
was pouring a Diet Coke into a plastic glass of ice. She looked at me briefly
and without apparent interest; her dark eyes showed a mix of boredom and
defiance. Gretchen did not introduce me to these individuals and talked as if
they were not there, which gave me an uneasy feeling about the job, as
though I had been charged with shepherding a flock of ghosts.
Leading me to the second-floor office where I had been interviewed
the day before, she explained my duties. I was to do whatever filing was
necessary, join the residents for dinner at six, and supervise the cleanup and
chores. After that I could read, write, chat with the women, or watch TV. At
precisely 10:30 I was to turn off the television, lock the doors, and click off
the downstairs lights. If a resident was missing, I was to make a note of the
fact in a logbook provided for that purpose. In the same book, I was also to
record my comments and observations and report any unusual or noteworthy
incidents. (Gretchen would read the logbook every morning and respond
briefly in writing.) Then I would have another block of solitude until midnight,
when I would be relieved by Dolly, a former house resident who made extra
money working the graveyard shift.
Gretchen directed my attention to a list of emergency numbers
posted on the wall above the desk: Fire, EMTs, Police. Then she pointed to a
three-ring binder bearing the title Responsibility House: Handbook of Policies
& Procedures. It was a messy affair, with loose pages haphazardly inserted
and yellow Post-Its peeping out everywhere. She said it would tell me how to
handle virtually any issue or problem that might arise.
I looked at it dubiously. "May I call you if I need assistance?"
Sighing noisily, she wrote her number on an index card and taped
it to the wall. As if her grudging manner were not enough to dissuade me,
she said, "You might have a hard time reaching me. I'm seeing someone, so
I'm hardly ever home." Then she added, "By the way, don't let them play the
radio during dinner.
They can never agree on a station and it's unfair to force people to
listen to music they don't like."
I nodded, but my blood ran cold. I was an only child; even in
college I lived alone. I had never battled with a sibling or traded insults with
my peers or fought and won a single turf battle with another human being. I
didn't know how not to let people play the radio. Was one supposed to plead,
cajole, tease? Should I ask politely or issue ultimatums from on high? And
what if the residents ignored me? Should I threaten retribution, pretend not to
notice, or call the police? I might have quit the job right there, confessing my
inadequacy, but by the time I found my voice, the heels of Gretchen's
sensible shoes were plunking down the uncarpeted stairs.
I watched from the window as she emerged into the driveway and
slid into the driver's side of her Civic. In another minute, the car had backed
into the street beyond my angle of vision, and the fear that Gretchen's
presence had kept in abeyance snaked through my body and constricted my
throat. Was this really happening? Was I really alone and defenseless in a
modern-day version of Sodom and Gomorrah? Hyperventilation began. It felt
as if the edges of my mind were smoldering to ash. I collapsed into a
shabby, bedspread-covered armchair, put my head between my legs, and
took deep breaths.
I was still in this vulnerable position when a small vibration pulsed
through the floorboards and bubbled up the legs of the chair. Though I willed it
to do anything else, the tremor swelled into the unmistakable reverberation of
thumping bass that was superseded by the piercing wail of a throaty female
voice. The artist screamed her lyrics at such a pitch of rage and desperation
that they were almost indistinguishable, but I could make out two words —
nail and baby — which spiraled around each other nauseatingly in a forced
conjunction horrific to any feeling human being.
The Handbook of Policies & Procedures was instantly in my hand.
Chapter headings listed Schedule, Medications, Cooking and Chores,
Laundry, Telephone Privileges, Weekend Passes, and Visitations. There was
no heading for Radio or Stereo and none for Dinner. I flipped to the back in
search of an index, but in my haste I failed to notice that the metal rings were
not firmly shut, and the entire first half of the book slid out of the binder and
fell across the floor in a perfect arc like a suddenly opened fan. I dove to
retrieve the pages, believing (absurdly, as I now realize) that they would
contain specific instructions for me, that there would be a heading titled
something like Managing Conflict Vis-à-Vis Meals and Music Selections.
But I did not have time to complete my search before the situation
escalated. Angry voices rose even over the sound of the deafening music. I
thought I heard some kind of wooden crack or crunch coming from the room
beneath me. Obviously, the residents were about to riot. There was no time
for study or preparation.
Gretchen had said, "Don't let them play the radio." In imperative
sentences the you is understood. Thus, it was clearly up to me to intervene
before the frustrated tempers of drinkless alcoholics and drugless addicts led
to the destruction of property or assault. With dread choking my throat and
the heavy-metal beat shaking the already compromised structure of the
house, I opened the office door and proceeded down the stairs.
The dining room was off the front hall to the right of the stairway. I
could see shadows flitting. The sounds of banter and complaining were
discernible through the jarring drumbeat and guitar whine. I reached the
threshold of the room and got a good look at several of the individuals whose
behavior I needed to modify. One had blue-black hair raised in a ponytail that
descended from the apex of her head; another wore a stack of silver
bracelets on the lower half of a muscular dark arm. A third was obese, which
forced one out of delicacy to notice nothing more, except the oxblood color of
the tentlike dress she wore. There were others gathering around the table,
and three or four milled around the radio deep in either conversation or
argument. As I watched, the door from the kitchen swung open and the
blackclad woman I had noticed earlier entered, bearing a platter of spaghetti
(in halfway houses one does not call this meal pasta) crowned with steaming
tomato sauce. Behind her tagged the dirty-haired woman carrying a large
bowl of unadorned iceberg lettuce. The woman with strong brown eyes
entered last, tossing napkins and silverware on the table heedlessly.
At first no one noticed me. Then, gradually, eyes began to find
me. In time I garnered the attention of the entire room and, in what I assumed
was deference to my authority, the volume of the radio was reduced so that
the music seemed tame and only remotely annoying, like a vacuum cleaner
in someone else's house.
At that point I cleared my throat and attempted to speak. I
intended to notify the women in a simple, respectful way of the rule forbidding
radio play during the dinner hour, but I am sorry to say that my voice was so
small and broken, it came out as a squeak. Several of the women craned
forward in what I guessed was a game attempt to hear me better, but I
noticed that several began to smirk, and I was instantly covered in a hot flush
of shame. A seated woman in a fuchsia turban raised her hand in a warning
gesture and screamed "Shut the fuck up!" to the room at large. Silence
descended. All eyes were on me. But alas, it was not the background noise
that had prevented me from being heard but the mutiny of my vocal cords.
I squeaked again.
A woman burst out laughing.
I pushed my glasses firmly onto the bridge of my nose and ran to
the haven of the second-floor office, where I stood trembling against the
accidentally slammed door. I'm sorry to say that I had not learned to be free
of the desire to make a good impression, even though I so seldom did. On
that particular occasion my failure of nerve stung me bitterly and brought to
mind as justified all the cruel taunts I had ever received.
Eventually my trembling ceased. I shed a few tears of self-
loathing, removed my glasses, and dried my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt.
I was supremely grateful that there was no more noise or thumping coming
from downstairs.
After a time of numbness, I heard a soft knock on the door. I
opened it to find the stout woman dressed in black. She was carrying a
dinner tray.
I had not noticed how old she was, and I was as much surprised
by that as by her thoughtfulness. I did not know that addicts could be so
aged. Her liver-spotted skin had deep vertical creases that sharpened and
elongated her arching Roman nose. Her mouth was a thin brown dash.
Bushy white eyebrows seemed, unlike her bones, to have grown thicker with
time. Her eyes were hidden so deeply beneath them that whatever
expressions they bore were fated to remain a mystery. She passed the laden
tray to me wordlessly and disappeared down the stairs. It did not surprise me
that she had not spoken. She looked like a gypsy stolen from another land.
After I had wolfed down the food, I felt much better and applied
myself to the work of tidying up the Handbook of Policies & Procedures.
When that was finished, I began to read it. I noticed repetition, ambiguity,
awkward phrasing, and numerous examples of completely undecipherable
prose. However, in spite of its poor quality, I enjoyed reading the Handbook of
Policies & Procedures very much and was quite sure I would retain virtually
all of the information contained therein.
Soon it was ten-thirty, time to execute my closing-up duties. I
fought down a wave of panic, faced the door resolutely, and prepared myself
to meet for the second time that evening whichever residents might be lurking
in the common areas downstairs. However, as my hand curled around the
doorknob, I was overpowered by debilitating fatigue and had just enough time
to sink into the armchair before I fell asleep. I was awoken at midnight by my
co-worker, Dolly, who wondered with rough impatience why the television was
blaring, the doors were unlocked, and the downstairs lights still burned.

Copyright © 2006 by Elisabeth Brink. Reprinted with permission by Houghton
Mifflin Company.

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