On the Line

Keystone Treatment Center, Canton, South Dakota

Outside the cafeteria’s back door, the smokers puff and joke, looking across the stubble-field world of chopped-off stalks that has ripped them up, that they’ve needed too much from. In ten minutes, more family-weekend meetings will begin—new strangers together in rooms revealing their secrets to one another—and back here, the sarcasm and letting-off-steam by the ones already used to meetings is subdued today since a few wives and parents and siblings have joined us on the porch—they’re smokers too. Brad’s ribbing Dad, saying they’ve been told here that nicotine’s the hardest habit to kick—Dad can look forward to a featured lecture on cigs this weekend, and maybe a poker game too. “But I don’t know, Dad. You think you can you keep your edge in a game with guys sharpened up by no money in the pot?”

Dad laughs and takes a last pull off his Winston, then aims its burning stub at the ground. He’s dry-drunk exhibit A in the family meetings, fitting all the warning signs whether he knows it or not, and the counselor, Connie, has started teasing him gently, defusing his defensiveness, implying he might try the patients’ meeting across the hall sometime. Connie’s a rare blend of Charo and Gloria Steinem, but Dad’s never heard of Gloria Steinem; he takes her challenging him as flirting. Connie says she grew up with a military dad like him. “My Saturday morning chore was shining his boots,” she tells Dad. I don’t bother explaining, and neither does Dad, that he’s not career military, just National Guard these days. Connie can see he’s not a willing participant, but she’s an expert, knows the group can make use of him anyway, starts calling him the Colonel, arousing our curiosity about how far she’ll go, how much she can get him to admit to the damage he’s caused his son, as she praises his startling confession that he needs to do whatever he can to keep Brad recovering, help him find a life again—perhaps admitted to in order to keep pretty blond Connie shining on him, making tolerable this weekend I’ve forced him into—and Mom too, who’s had to miss most meetings, sleeping through them in Brad’s cinder-block room, exhausted by cancer and the relief that her son’s not dead, he’s here, even if it took a court order.

Meeting time again: the rest of the smokers take last puffs, exhale, and turn their backs on the cloud they’ve made, the clean, blank sky beyond.

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