It was cloudy. I don’t remember much else about the state of the day, but I remember it was cloudy, and cold.
Dave met me at my office. He was wearing a black hoody with a white graffiti logo, beat up tennis shoes, and grey running pants. He was thin and heavy rings under his eyes. His shoulders were slumped and he stared at the floor. He wasn’t happy to be in my office.
The day before, his father called me. Dave’s dad, a kind man in his mid-fifties, explained Dave was ready to go into a program, finally. His father said “finally” like a frustrated traveler waiting for a delayed plane to arrive at the gate. “Finally,” he said, “Dave’s going to get his life in order. He’s finally ready. And it’s a good thing too, because I’m not just going to keep giving him money. No more. I told him he is cut off. The tap has run dry. He’s twenty-two and it’s time for him to stand on his own two feet.”
I listened, silently wondering how much money Dave’s dad had given Dave over the years and for how long Dave had been using. I didn’t ask questions. I knew the stories I would hear: stories of Dave stealing; of Dave lying; of Dave disappearing, then reappearing; of Dave getting jobs, losing jobs, then getting new jobs; of nothing ever being Dave’s fault; of hope blossoming only to be crushed over and over. Addicts have the worst luck. Horrible things seem to happen to them, but they’re never responsible. I had heard all the stories before from different parents about different kids, so, instead of questioning Dave’s dad, I simply asked, “How can I help?”
“Would you take him?” Dave’s dad responded. His voice cracked a little. “I can’t do it,” he said. “I just can’t.”
I understood. It wasn’t that Dave’s dad was embarrassed or ashamed. He was afraid. He was afraid that if he got in a car with Dave, the con would begin anew. “Sure,” I answered. “What time does he need to check in?”
Dave didn’t look “finally” ready. His eyes were empty and tired. He leaned a little to the left, like someone unaccustomed to standing. He reminded me of a teen waiting in line at the MVA to pay off a confusing traffic infraction. His countenance held no excitement, no ambition for adventure, no hope for what might be. In front of me was a sullen, sad, angry boy who didn’t want to be with here, but was out of options.
“You ready?” I asked him.
He nodded, staring at his worn through shoes.
We walked together down the stairs, out the door, and then to my car in silence. I started the engine and pulled away from the curb. Finally, hands shoved into the pockets of his hoody, he spoke. “I don’t need this you know.” He put his feet up on my dashboard.
“Don’t need what?” I asked, playing dumb.
“Don’t need this recovery stuff,” he said. “I’ve got it under control, you know. I mean, yeah, I’ve used some stuff. I do it every once in a while. But I’m no addict.”
“Really?” I said with no expression.
“Yeah,” Dave said gaining confidence. “I just needed a little help with rent and stuff. You see, I had this really great job working construction. But then my stupid boss laid me off for no reason. He said we didn’t have enough work or something, but I know that’s not true because he had tons of other guys around. But I don’t care though ‘cause I’ve got another job comin’ up in a week or so. I’ve got this friend who knows this guy who owns the restaurant, and he’s totally goin’ to hook me up with this job cookin’.”
“You know this program is thirty days, right?” I said.
“Oh yeah, of course. But that’s for the addicts. I’m just using it as a place to stay while I’m in between stuff. Like a half-way house.”
“Do they know that?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said with confidence. “I talked to them. They’re cool with it.”
I knew the program manager. I was certain he was not cool with it. “Does your dad know that’s the deal?”
Dave set up. He recognized where we were. He started looking down the streets we passed, searching for something. “Yeah, yeah,” Dave said. “I asked him if he would help me out, but he’s being a dick. Hey, yo, you think we could stop at this house I use to stay at. I left my ID there, and I think I need it to have it to get into the program.”
“Sure,” I said. I had no choice. If he arrived with no ID he’d be coming back to the office with me and we would be doing this dance again tomorrow.
Following Dave’s directions, I weaved my car through the blocks of row homes. Most of the houses were abandoned. The street was littered with trash. A pack of random working-aged men milled about at the end of the block, searching for something to do. Children did not laugh or play here. There were no watercolor paintings displayed in windows, no forgotten toys lying about, no chalk drawings on the sidewalk. This was a neighborhood owned by sadness, neglect, and addiction.
“I use to rent this room from this guy at a house two blocks up,” Dave assured me. He was leaning forward in his seat. His eyes were wide and wild, like a fox that caught the scent of an injured rabbit. “Oh, stop here!” He opened the door and stepped out onto the street before I could bring the car to a full halt. “I’ll be right back,” Dave said. “Just stay there. Don’t park.”
I pulled the car next to the curb. Unlike other areas of the city, finding parking in this section of town was not a problem. Dave disappeared down an ungated mugger’s alley. The houses on either side of the alley had their windows boarded up, their front doors cinderblocked closed. Their grey formstone was yellow and cracked. No one had rented these houses in ages.
I considered leaving him. I knew nothing good was happening in the house. If I left, Dave could go find a quiet place to use whatever he was stealing, and not have to keep up this charade any longer. But what would I tell his dad? “Sorry sir, he went in an abandon house to go get his ID. I’m pretty sure he was lying, so I left him there.” I sighed and waited.
After a few minutes, Dave emerged from the alley. He walked at a hurried pace, forcing himself not to run. His eyes were large and panicked. He glanced over his shoulder, checking to see if he was being followed. He rubbed his hands together, blowing in them for warmth. He looked up and down the street. There was a large bulge in the pocket of his hoody where his hands had been. I couldn’t help but wonder who he had just robbed. He threw open the passenger door of my car and lunged into the seat. “Let’s go, let’s go!” he said, still looking back at the house.
I considered questioning him, or sticking around to make him face the consequences of whatever he had just done; but then decided I didn’t want to meet the real owner of the bulge in his hoody’s pocket, so I put the car into drive and pulled forward slowly. As I moved the car off the curb, I asked, “Did you get your ID?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Can you move this thing faster?”
“Why?” I asked, simply for the joy of frustrating him. Maybe I should have been afraid, but I never was on these types of errands. I always assumed God would have my back if stuff got dangerous.
“What?” he said. Then, realizing that I might be onto him, he began to recover. “Oh, um,” he said regaining his composure. “I just want to get there you know. To the program? Let’s get this next phase of my life going. It’s a brand new start.” He gave me a smile and confirming head nod. It was the first time that day he had looked me in the eye.
I laughed. I couldn’t help but be impressed at his ability to turn on the responsible-kid-from-the-suburbs-charm when he needed it. “You’re a real piece of work,” I said driving away from the house. “Be real. What did you take from that house?”
“What do you mean?” he said innocently. Now, with a block between us and the house, he was starting to relax. He leaned back again, put his hands behind his head, and plopped his dilapidated tennis shoes on my dash board.
“Whatever that is in your pocket is way too big for an ID. You know they’re going to search you before you go into the program.”
“What?” he said as if I had offended him. “It’s just a pair of socks and a tooth brush. I left it there when I moved out.”
I sighed and shook my head in disbelief. “Yeah, okay,” I said.
We arrived at the program. It was housed in three large row homes. Each had small front yards and big porches packed with hard looking men. I pulled the car in an empty parking spot across the street.
“Thanks,” Dave said gleefully as he pushed the car door open. “Tell my dad you dropped me off, okay.”
“Wait,” I said grabbing his arm to stop him. He turned and smiled at me. I breathed deeply and pondered for a moment if it was worth trying to engage this kid. Then I remembered the hope in his father’s voice and decided to press forward.
“Listen,” I said, “the addicts I know that survive, the ones that make it, they get to a place where they will kill themselves before they take another hit. If you’re ever going to beat this monster, you’re going to have to get to that place. It’s all or nothing.”
“Okay?” he said faking confusion.
“I know you’re not there yet, but…”
“Yo, I told you,” he interrupted. “I’m not an addict.”
“I know. I know. I just wanted to let you know that when you’re ready, when you get to that place where you are really ready to change, come find me.”
“Okay, pastor,” he said with a laugh. Then he flashed me his charming smile once more and added, “Thanks again.”
He slammed my car door and stepped back. He stood on the sidewalk, not moving, waiting for me to pull away, pretending that he needed me to move my car before he could cross the street. I thought about calling his bluff, getting out of my car, trying to walk him into the program, and then debating whatever excuse he was preparing to explain why he couldn’t go “right now.” But what was the point? It’s a game I would lose. If he didn’t want it, I couldn’t force him to take it. So I left.
Through my rear-view mirror, I watched him walk up the street, away from the program, in search of a safe place to get high.
Back in my office, I sat at my desk and stared at my cell phone. I knew Dave’s dad was waiting for my call. I knew what he was hoping to hear. A fire of anger burned in my chest toward Dave. Why couldn’t he just get clean? Why couldn’t he just walk into the program? Why did he have to tear everything down?
Then self-doubt crept in. Should I have called his bluff? Should I have forced him up the program stairs and in the front door? Should I have demanded he give me his new stash? A knot of confusion formed in my chest. My eyes began to water. I just didn’t know.
In need of guidance, I looked to the wall behind my desk. There was a collage of quotes, mostly sayings I’d found in books or heard on podcasts. Whenever I stumbled upon something that helped me explain the world, I would type it out, print it off, and tape it up on the wall. I searched the collage for the one I needed. My eyes found it quickly. It was a quote from The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. I read it aloud:
“It is still ‘either-or.’ If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven. If we accept heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell. I believe to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) has not been lost: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in ‘the High Countries’… But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell. And earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”
Upon finishing the quote, I closed my eyes, said a prayer, took a deep breath, and picked up my phone. I scrolled through the recent calls until I landed on Dave’s dad. I pressed “Send.” It only rang once.
“Hey, sir,” I said full of remorse. “No, he didn’t go in. He’s back out there. But there’s always hope. Maybe next time.”