I kneed the guard in the gut and laughed as he collapsed like a dynamited bridge.
He went down hard but managed to swing his baton in a wicked arc from the floor, rupturing the plastic bottle in my right hand. Mescal splashed into his face and he dropped the baton and shrieked as the savage Mexican liquor burned his eyes raw.
So much for the victory shots , I thought as I leapt over him and sprinted down the hall, pursued by hoarse shouts and shrill alarm bells. I was bitter about the spilled liquor, but I pushed it aside. On the other side of the steel door at the end of the hall was all the booze I could ever want — and more.
Three weeks earlier things hadn’t appeared so promising. I awoke to the mean bass-drum beat of a world-class hangover and meaner surroundings.
Stark fluorescents glared from the low ceiling, searing my bloodshot eyes. The bed and adjoining dresser were made of metal and bolted to the cement floor. The walls were the hue of institutional green that suggest society had suddenly taken an interest in you. The windowless walls were bare except for a single adornment: a poster of a scrawny cat hanging from his front paws above the text: Hang in there, baby!
“Great,” I said, sitting up slowly. I’d been locked up before. The layout suggested detox but the poster and the pajamas I wore suggested I’d been dragged much deeper into the system. Rehab.
I went to the door. It was locked and looked solid enough to stop a runaway beer truck. It had a little steel-mesh window. I stuck my face in it.
“Hey!” I yelled. I could see identical doors across the hall. “Fire! Fire!”
A severe woman’s face appeared. “Fire? Where’s the fire?”
“No, I said, ‘ You’re fired.’ Where am I?”
“On the road to recovery.”
“That’s great. What am I recovering from?”
“You don’t know?”
“Of course I do. I just want to hear you say it.”
“Alcoholism. Antisocial behavior. Destruc—”
“That’s enough. Who’s paying?”
“I have no father.”
“Of course you do. He signed the papers. It was this or jail.”
The face disappeared. I sat on the bed and looked at the poster. Hang in there? Why? What was the point of a mangy cat hanging from a goddamn rod? What did it accomplish?
I learned at the slop parade that passed for breakfast that I was ensconced in the Sierra Vista Sanitarium. To be committed against your will meant you had to be declared mentally incompetent. Was I? I didn’t feel incompetent. The last thing I remembered was running from cops or possibly security guards and ducking into my sister’s house with an armful of allegedly stolen liquor. “Hide this,” I remembered telling her, “and hide me while you’re at it. Wanna drink?”
I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten the bottles, but I did remember that they had the pour spouts common to bar bottles. And believe you me, you have to be more than a little competent to walk out of a bar with an armful of their inventory.
After breakfast I endured half an hour of general questions in the office of my personal counselor, Mrs. Cross. Routine stuff. Then I was sent to orientation, except it was called “Getting to Know You” or “We Know How to Get You,” I forget which. Two dozen of us sat in chairs circled around a washed-up hippie named Mr. Henke. Right off the bat he let us know he wasn’t there to judge our sins, heck no, he used to be a screw-up himself. As a matter of fact, his screw-ups would make ours look like schoolboy pranks. He had a big droopy mustache and pronounced alcohol, alky- hol. After we introduced ourselves he asked each of us to answer a simple question: “If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”
This was standard counselor trickery. Once they got you on board as the star witness for the prosecution, they just sat back and watched you tear yourself apart. I watched the question rip its way around the circle like a chain saw. It was sickening.
There are exactly two types of heavy drinkers: drunks and alcoholics. Drunks hunted booze, they preyed upon it. Alcoholics, on the other hand, had decided at some point that they were not actually hunters, so much as alcohol was hunting them. They were just innocent victims, minding their own business, and evil old alcohol sniffed them out and made their lives a mess.
I looked around the room and mentally assembled the two groups. It was as easy as separating wolves from sheep. At the moment it was about 50-50. By graduation it would be around 80-20. That’s the irony of rehab. It doesn’t cure alcoholics — the recidivism rate is notoriously high — it creates them, it cranks them out like widgets.
“What would you change, Mark?”
I snapped out of it. Henke was looking at me. Everyone was looking at me.
“Everything,” I said.
Henke’s mustache twitched. “Everything?”
“From the ground up.”
“A fresh start, eh? I guess that would include your relationship with alkyhol.”
“You bet. But mostly I’d change my arms.”
Laughter tittered around the room.
“Your arms, Mark?”
“Yes. I’d like to have three arms. The first would be strong. It would hold me up when temptation tried to pull me down. The second would be friendly. It would shake the hand of every good man I met.”
Henke nodded approvingly. “That’s interesting, Mark. But what about that third arm?”
“Oh, that one’s flagging down the bartender.”
Half the room erupted in laughter. Henke stared at me for a moment, angry that he’d been tricked. Henke knew the difference between wolves and sheep too. And he didn’t like it when they started wearing each other’s clothing.
Henke’s head turned to the next guy, but his eyes stayed on me. He said, “What would you change, Stan?”
That’s how he was going to play it. Non-confrontational. He had nothing but time, and I had nothing to drink. He knew the harder I fought the current, the more tired I would get, and sooner or later I’d be too tired to even tread water. Then I’d drown.
When we broke for lunch, two wolves joined me at my table: Happy, a heavy-set Samoan and Stan, a raw-boned Alabamian who’d distinguished himself at orientation by saying he’d like to have four arms, because he was a smoker.
Happy was a retread, he’d served a three-month stretch at Sierra Vista the previous year. I went right to work on him.
“How’s security here?” I asked.
“Tight for rehab. Two doors between you and daylight, both key locked. First one opens into the staff area, the second into the reception.”
I frowned. “What’s the hooch situation?”
Happy shook his head. “Dry, real dry. Get it out of your head.”
“We just gotta gut it out,” Stan said. “They’ll still be pouring when we get out.”
“Just hang in there, huh?” I said.
“Yeah,” Stan said. “Who knows, maybe we’ll learn something while we’re in here.”
“Yeah,” I said, getting up. “That’s just what I intend to do.”
Between lunch and dinner I languished in an array of classes tailored to my particular problems: Anger Management, the Physiology of Alcohol Dependency and the Orwellian-themed Quitting Is Winning! Standard indoctrination.
After dinner you were given the option of getting some air in the high-walled courtyard, playing games in the rec room or returning to your room. After a smoke, I went back to my room and laid on my bed. I looked at the poster. You hung in there because you had to. You hung on because you were dangling over Hell.
I don’t care how deep a hole they put you in, a little light always shines through. There’s always a chink in the wall. It took me all of two days to find it.
The chink was working a mop in my wing, holding it like he was dancing with the ugliest girl in town and all his friends were watching. But don’t think I’m racist. The chink wasn’t Chinese. He was Mexican. The moment I laid eyes on him I knew we could communicate. It was in his hunched shoulders and his pained eyes. I knew the look, I’d seen it enough times in the mirror. He was gloriously hungover.
As I walked toward him I reached my hand into my pocket and fingered the twenty dollar bill I’d been allowed to keep. You could draw $20 a week from whatever money you came in with, to buy personal items in the sanitarium’s commissary. Instead I decided to bet it on a long shot.
When I got abreast of him I stopped, stooped, and pretended to pick the bill up.
“You dropped something,” I said, offering him the twenty.
“ Que?” he said, startled. He looked at it and shook his head no.
“Put it in the lost and found, then,” I said, tucking it in the breast pocket below his ID card. His eyes followed mine to his janitorial cart. I hefted a plastic bottle of Mr. Clean. “Man, I wish this were whiskey. You like, whiskey, Pedro?”
“Tequila,” he whispered.
“Me, I like whiskey. It gives me new eyes. Ever notice that? It lets you see more clearly. You know,” I held the bottle up, “if his were whiskey, I’d be finding twenty dollar bills all over this place.”
He looked me in the eyes. Wolf? Sheep? I couldn’t tell.
“Which I’d give to you, of course,” I said.
His gaze faltered and the mop started moving. He went back to his work, his expression clouded.
I settled into my routine. Aside from the vaguely interesting battle of wills that my morning sessions with Henke were turning into, the classes and meetings blurred together into grey landscape of impotent pop psychology and hoary old lies about Mother Alcohol.
I ran into Pedro on four occasions during the first week. Each time he ducked my eyes and became very earnest about his job. I decided it was a wash. I would have to go to Plan B, which rhymes with P, which stands for pruno.
Once a week each prisoner was expected to help out in the kitchen. Most of the guests of Sierra Vista hated it, mostly because a venal bastard named Rod who ran the operation. I, on the other hand, was looking forward to my chance to serve. When my turn came, I volunteered for the dishwashing detail. The job consisted of loading dirty dishes into racks and feeding them into a large industrial dishwasher.
I got a case of the slows, so that long after the food line servers had left, I was still at it.
“You’re slow,” Rod said, standing in the doorway with his hands on his hips.
“I’m getting the hang of it,” I said, levering open the washer’s hatch and shoving in a rack of dishes. “Give me five and I’ll be through.”
He ducked out and I headed straight for the dry goods room. The thing about pruno is, you can make it from almost anything organic. All you need is sugar and yeast. I scooped up two gallon cans of fruit cocktail and a bag of bread and returned to my station.
I doubled a pair of black trash bags and dumped in the fruit cocktail. That was my sugar. I ripped open the bread bag and threw in six slices of bread. That was my yeast. I added a gallon of water and four packets of sugar to sweeten the deal, gave it a good shake, twist-tied the bag tight, then ran it through the washer with a load of dishes to warm it up.
I checked my watch. Four of my five minutes were up. I pulled out the bag, wrapped it in dish towels then realized I’d screwed up.
I’d forgotten to scout out a hiding place. I was standing there with an armful of contraband and no place to put it. I frantically searched, looking for something, anything, but there was no crevice, no cranny, there was only the steel racks for the dishes. I was about to drop the whole shebang in the trash and cut my losses when my eyes fell upon on the washer.
I leaned over and took a look behind the big stainless steel box. There was about eight inches of space between the washer and wall. The pipe that fed it water came up from the floor then angled into the machine. I reached out and felt the pipe. It was warm to the touch. Perfect. I carefully laid the bag over the pipe. The contents split into equal haves and hung like a pair of water wings. I adjusted the towels and took a step back.
If anyone bothered to look behind the washer, it was over. But why would they? It looked like it hadn’t been cleaned back there since it was installed.
“Taking a break, fuckface?”
I turned to Rod, who was standing in the door way.
“Fucking thing’s broke!” I blurted. It was all I could think of.
“Bullshit!” Rod grabbed the washer’s lever, threw it up, slammed it back down and jabbed the wash button. It roared to life. “Works fucking fine!”
“I guess you’re smarter than me.”
“No shit. Now finish up so I can get outta here!”
He stalked out and I glanced at the bag hanging from the pipe. It looked like a big pair of balls. I thought that was funny as hell at the time.
“Did you find any twenties today, senor?”
I stopped in my tracks. It was Pedro. I hadn’t even noticed him, that’s how much I’d given up.
“I told you,” I said. “I need whiskey to see that money.”
He glanced around then slipped me a small bottle of Mr. Clean. The bald man smiled from the label. “I’ll give it a try,” I said and walked to my room.
I closed my door with my back, unscrewed the bottle and took a whiff. It smelled like cleaning solvent.
What kind of sick fuck was I dealing with? I thought. Did he really think I wanted to drink Mr. Clean?
I took another smell and this time I noticed there was another pungent odor lurking beneath the solvent. Mescal.
I steeled myself and took a swig. Pedro hadn’t done a bang-up job rinsing out the bottle, but the stuff inside was the real deal. Cheap, raw mescal, the stuff you could get for three bucks a bottle on the warmer side of the border.
I had good, long, welcome-back pull, then sagged against the door and sucked in a raspy breath. I never liked the stuff much, but now I was a big fan.
I took another pull and I suddenly felt like a new man. A man with possibilities, with resources, with big plans. I closed my eyes and saw a light, a thin sliver of light shining down through the darkness. I felt like my old self and a new man.
I carefully screwed the cap back on. I’d already sucked down a third of it, and I had to watch over my investment. I looked at Mr. Clean, my silent partner. I looked at that goddamn scrawny cat. He was hanging in there. I thought about my bag of pruno back in the kitchen. It was hanging in there too. And so was I.
It was time to go find those twenties.
Just as I’d told Pedro, I found them all over the place. I went room to room, seeking out only the wolves, selling shots. The price was high, but that’s the nature of supply and demand. An hour later I returned to my room with sixty three dollars and a wake-up shot for the bartender.
“How are we feeling today, Mr. Malloy?” Henke asked the next morning.
“Fan-fucking- tastic,” I said.
“Why, you look downright chirpy!” he said in a slightly mocking way. “And you managed it without alkyhol. Give him a hand, boys!”
They gave me a big hand, especially those who had gotten a taste the night before. I actually got up and bowed, smiling like an fool. It was too much. Henke thought I was drowning. He didn’t know I’d got my strength back. I could tread water all day. And my water wings were on the way.
From there on out it was just a matter of keeping the wheels turning. I negotiated a rate of 20 bucks a bottle with Pedro. He wanted more, but I knew it wasn’t costing him more than three dollars to fill each twenty ounce bottle. I told him I’d take as much as he could deliver.
Next I made it known that I would pick up anyone’s kitchen detail for a fiver and soon I was working the wash box four days a week. I massaged and burped gas from the bag, and by day five it was ready. I poured the mash through a strainer and filled up 24 Ziplock sandwich bags. I started up two new batches, hung them from the pipe, then smuggled out the Zips in my pants.
The pruno would gag a wino, but it did the trick if you kept it down. It went for six bucks a bag, pure profit. I kept four for myself and sold off the rest. I played it tight at first, only selling to those I knew from my classes, but they soon ran out of money and I had to expand my market. I took on Happy and Stan as salesmen and they in turn hired guys in the other wings. They all worked on liquor commission.
Soon Pedro was carting in a half-dozen bottles a day — Mr Clean Mescal, Pine Sol Whiskey, 409 Vodka, Clorox Gin, whatever it took to make your insides sparkle, we had it. I was pulling in up to two hundred bucks a day profit, not to mention a half bottle of booze and a couple bags of pruno per diem for personal use. I mean, I had the joint wired. And everyone was happy. Pedro was cleaning up, the drunks were drinking and me, I was on top of the whole game, getting my cake and drinking it too. The way the light was shining, I’d be walking out with enough dough to rent a bar stool ‘til Xmas.
Not that I was being naive about it. I knew it would fall apart at some point. Which is why I intended, after I made my roll, to pass off the operation to Happy and Stan. I would still skim a little cash and enough juice to keep me level, but I would be clear. This way, when it finally came crashing down, I’d be far enough away to avoid any falling timbers. Of course, those kind of plans never seem to work out.
I saw Pedro down the hall and smiled. He looked away, stricken, and I immediately knew the gig was up. Somewhere the network had cracked and it was undoubtedly rolling up on itself at that very moment.
I found Happy smoking nervously in the courtyard. I signalled him to follow and we went back to my room where he gave me the news.
Stan had stashed a bottle in the restroom next to Henke’s classroom, so he could ease his way through Henke’s afternoon class (Power Up with Positivity!) with little nips during the breaks. Only he’d forgotten to lock the stall door and Henke had barged in and caught him chugging from a bottle of Pine-Sol. Henke thought he was trying to commit suicide. They wrestled with the bottle and Henke got the best of Stan. That’s about when Happy arrived:
“I ducked my head in the restroom after a couple of attendants dragged Stan to the medical ward. Henke was leaning against a sink with the bottle in his hand. He looked like he was going to cry. I mean, there’s a little soul searching involved when one of your patients decides he’d rather guzzle floor cleaner than sit through another Power Up session. He looked like he was going to pour it down the sink when his whiskers started twitching. He stopped and sniffed the bottle and you should have seen the look on his face. He looked like he would have been happier if Stan had chugged Pine Sol.”
I could figure out the rest for myself. They must have put two and two together and rounded up the janitors for a quick Q and A. Pedro should have been safe. I’d bought out his supply that morning and passed all of it off except a bottle of Mr. Clean for myself. As long as he didn’t talk, they couldn’t prove a thing.
That’s when I heard his squeaky cart coming down the hall.
I didn’t have to look out the door to know for whom the cart squeaked. My chink had cracked.
I went to my dresser, pulled out the drawer and removed my bankroll and bottle of Mr. Clean from the recess.
Happy eyed the bottle. “Right!” he said, reaching. “Let’s chug it before they take it away!”
“They’re not taking it away,” I said. “I’m taking it with me.”
“Out. According to my watch, it’s Happy Hour. Last call, pal.”
Happy blinked at me, then looked off to the side.
Before I walked out the door, I took one last look at that scrawny cat and realized I had been right from the start. Hang in there? What for? What’s the point in a cat hanging from a rod?
I walked into the hall and sure enough, Pedro squeaked up the hall flanked by Henke and two burly attendants.
“Just who we wanted to see,” Henke said. He was powered up but it wasn’t on positivity.
“I found this in my room,” I said, holding up the bottle of Mr. Clean as I walked toward him.
“Too late!” Henke yelled and I dropped my shoulder and drove it into his chest. He fell into Pedro and I grabbed the cart and drove it into the pair of attendants. They split like a pair of bowling pins and flopped onto the ground. I took off running.
I had planned on grabbing Henke’s keys, but I hadn’t counted on the attendants, who were already scrambling to their feet. I was loose, but I was trapped. I ran toward the security door, on the other side of the wing, without having any idea how I would get through it.
I slowed to take a corner and couldn’t believe what I saw. Rod was walking out of the chow hall with a pruno bag in each hand. It was too much. He saw me coming and he just stood there, dumbfounded. With his hands occupied it was an easy, sweet punch. I hit him at full stride, knocking him clean off his feet. I grabbed his key ring and for the life of an insane second I thought about grabbing the bags. I really did. I was that twisted.
There were a dozen keys on the ring and I got lucky and sprung the first security door on the third try. It locked behind me, cutting out the shouts closing in behind me.
A bell started ringing and I took off down the hall toward the second and last door. That’s when I ran into the guard I mentioned earlier.
After I left him on the tiles with my mescal, I ran and prayed for luck with keys. I swore once I got to the bar I’d buy myself a shot of the best scotch in the house, if I could just have some luck.
I got the second door on the fifth or sixth key. Average luck, but good enough.
As I loped through the reception lobby, the receptionist hollered, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” I excused her and dove out the double glass doors into downtown Phoenix.
I got picked up six months later on a drunk and disorderly charge. I ended up serving six months in county for my crimes, past and present. It wasn’t as soft as rehab, but there was plenty of pruno to go around.
Now, eighteen years later, I work in the import/export trade. Strictly on the up and up. Sometimes I wonder what happened to Happy and Stan. I wonder if they came out of Sierra Vista with anything they could use.
As for me, I’m hanging in there. Every now and then I’ll open the doors under my kitchen sink and look at that smiling bald man (it’s the only brand I’ll buy) and get a funny feeling. Then I’ll close the doors and head down to Happy Hour.
–Mark Malone as told to Frank Kelly Rich