A Story About Addiction

by Owen Carry

I wanted to tell this story at my meeting today but decided not to. It’s not a very long story and it happened fairly recently, just two days ago. There’s a new deli that opened up not far from me and it’s starting to become my new go-to. It’s simple, fast and the prices seem to be the cheapest in the area. It’s so new that they don’t even have a menu yet, just all the selections like meat, veggies and condiments in the glass case in front of you. You just point at what you want and the guy makes your sandwich. I kind of like the vibe in there and I really like that it’s cheap and I think the guys will start to recognize me soon.

Anyway, I was there the other day waiting for my order when an older, skinny woman, dressed in jogging clothes, came in wearing an N-95. She seemed vaguely in a rush and she hesitated at me standing there. She was wondering if I was waiting in line or not. When she asked me, I said that I had already ordered. This got the attention of the guy behind the counter.

She then proceeded to ask the dumbest question ever. “Yes,” she said. “Do you guys serve sandwiches with eggs, bacon and cheese?”

The deli guy was polite. I don’t think he wanted to alienate her. “Yes, we do.”

“Oh, great!” She sounded relieved, in a way that came out as excitement. “Well, I’ll take three of those then. Eggs, cheese and bacon, on a hero. All three on heroes.”

The deli man thought for a second and then gave her a thumbs up. First, he had to finish my order.

She kept hovering though, needing his attention for one more moment. “Wait!” she said. “Do you guys carry Pepsi sodas?” She was on her tippy-toes, trying to peak over the counter where he was working. "Are there Pepsi sodas back there? Where can I get them? And they need to be Diet. Do you have Diet sodas back there?”

He pointed behind her to the wall of fridges, lined up in the back, practically emitting half of the light in the establishment, filled with soda.

“Perfect!” she said and then she let him be.

A different man was behind me. I wondered if he was eavesdropping too. I was just on my phone. The whole time, I was just on my phone. I was just waiting for my sandwich too.

I heard her grab three Pepsi bottles and carry them to the cashier. She was holding all of them in one hand, each cap was pinched between two fingers. She was barely holding them. She was fiddling with her purse at the same time, with the other hand. She was distracted. I watched her put all of them on the counter and they almost rolled behind it.

The cashier boy was chewing gum and watching her, but he reacted when the bottles were about fall, hopping off of his stool and catching them. His earbuds popped out of his ears when he moved.

He looked flustered. He wasn’t listening to his music anymore. He pushed them forward while they were still sideways on the counter. She handed him her credit card, but he didn’t take it. He put his hand up like a stop sign, basically saying, “Just wait for the sandwiches to be ready.”

I remember looking over at those three hero rolls, cut open and splayed on the cutting board before anything was on them. I saw the chef press them flat and put them in the toaster.

By that time, though, my sandwich was ready, and I had to go. I didn’t stay long enough to see the lady’s eggs, bacon and cheese put onto them.

If I had stayed long enough, I probably would have said something funny to that guy standing behind me. I probably would have raised a question to him, who was this lady bringing these sandwiches to? This frumpy little Manhattan lady, fussing with three bacon, egg and cheeses on heroes. They’d probably barely fit in the plastic bag they’d hand her. I imagined in my head, who were these three, hungry people? Were they her sons, cousins, daughters, triplets? Were they healthy, scared, happy, hungry? Were they already full? Were they getting a “surprise lunch” or was this a usual thing? Why were they all drinking diet soda?

I thought about telling this story at my meeting today but I didn’t end up doing it because I thought, well, it didn’t have much to do with addiction. Instead, I told a story about my grandfather. He’s dead now but he was alive when I was still in my early twenties.

It got to a point with him where he had to be in a nursing home despite his drinking problem. My parents had to look for a place that would essentially turn a blind eye to his drinking problem. They’d monitor it and mitigate it, but if he wanted a scotch and soda at noon, they weren’t going to turn him down. The best thing the nurses could do was water down his drinks before four, that way, they could still have him standing in the cafeteria for dinner time.

Back then, my mother was really worried about my grandfather. She took frequent trips to Indiana by car. These were long trips, and I imagined that she didn’t stop driving, no breaks. She’s the kind of person to do that, to keep driving. That’s the way she is. She wants to get there quick and not waste any time.

I was in grad school when this was happening but I lived close enough to my parent’s home out of state that I could come by for dinner on the weekends. My parents would sometimes come to see me too, and we’d get dinner near my school. Every now and then, I’d think about picking up the dinner bill. I was getting to be that age.

Because I lived so close to home and because my mom was always going there, I felt guilty sometimes that I didn’t join her to see my grandpa. I knew that he liked me. I knew that she told him stories about me, that I was in grad school, studying. When she relayed the stories to me, I felt like I was some postcard on his dresser. Something for him to look at.

There was this one time that I called my mom when she was out there and we talked on the phone for a while about other things besides grandpa. Before the call ended though, she told me, “By the way, if your grandpa calls you sometime this week, tell him, ‘Enjoy the shirt!’”

My mother had gotten him a shirt and told him that it was from me, that I’d picked it out specifically for him. On the phone, she told me that he loved it, he loved it. And, she decided to mention that the shirt was also the only way that she could get him to change. It was the only way she could get him to change his clothes. “I wanted him to try on the shirt,” you know? He’d been wearing the same outfit for two months at that point and he refused to shower. “He doesn’t like the women bathing him,” she said.

So the next time my mother planned on going there, I wanted to join her. Part of me thought she might not want me to come, but when I brought it up she was excited about it. I guess she always wanted a road companion. My dad never joined her. Sometimes my mom’s siblings joined her. They never drove together though. They all lived in different parts of the country. But when one of my uncles or aunts joined my mom, my dad felt less obligated to go. Of course, there were always hidden parts of his decision that were loud enough to be known but not spoken on.

He sometimes talked to me about it, about my mother’s trips, about my grandpa. It always happened when we were alone. I could never reveal the gritty details of our conversations to my mother. My dad knew more details than I did, about what was really going on out there, and my mother knew all of my dad’s opinions but none of the adjectives that he used to back them up.

From my conversations with him, I thought I knew everything that I was walking into, in that, I felt like my mom was downplaying the ugliness of the situation out in Indiana. Sometimes, not often, she gave me hints at the reality out there. For instance, I couldn’t believe that my grandpa hadn’t changed his clothes for two months.

Our road trip started in the family car. The first thing I was right about was her ritual of driving. She drove until she dropped, but now she had someone to take the day shift for her. That meant we didn’t stop at all, not even to sleep. I still felt like she was watering down her manicness though, like, when we stopped for Arby’s, she was smiling, too much. I imagined her passing Arby’s on every trip but needing someone hungry enough, like me, to insist that we stop.

I hated it, the driving. I’d forgotten that. I wished we had stretched more, and taken more rest stops. I wish I didn’t have to pee in a bottle, right next to her. But when my mom drove, I could tell she was dependent on the sense of dread. She lived on the masochism of it. She drove really fast.

We reached Indiana at lightning speed, not because she wanted to get there but because she wanted to get it over with. I felt like we did it faster than a robot could have. It was so mechanical. When we got to the Indiana border, I needed some sort of sentimentality to remind me that I was human. I insisted that my mom take a picture of me with the “Welcome to Indiana” sign. I showed the picture to my meeting. I passed around my phone. It was the only photo that I took on the whole trip. 

When we got to the nursing home at midday, we were checked in by my grandpa’s usual nurse. The place was a lot nicer than I imagined. There were palm trees there, in Indiana, lining the front of the building.

Inside, the receptionist’s desk was surrounded by white receding staircases, like a mansion. It felt like they’d put the front desk where a piano should be. Nurses and other staffers were walking around the lobby, wheeling aimless seniors, each of them with their own, small team of professionals. Some of the staffers came out from a hallway on the right and motioned for us to follow them. They took my mom to see my grandpa’s room. I followed. He was sitting alone in there, in a wheelchair, not watching TV or anything.

Seeing him sitting there, looking down, it reminded me of when we visited my grandparents on holidays, before they sold their house. He’d always be sitting there, in a chair, doing nothing. My gut reaction was always that he was on his phone, checking things. But my grandpa didn’t have a phone. Old people don’t check notifications. He was just looking down at his thumbs, moving them around, and frowning. This was back when my grandma still took care of him. But then she got too old herself. She couldn’t do it anymore. His drinking had gotten out of hand.

At the nursing home, when we walked into his room, he was only expecting my mother. I realized she hadn’t told him that I was coming. I think she wanted it to be a surprise. She knew that he’d be so happy to see me. We could talk about his new shirt and stuff. She briefed me beforehand, telling me it was blue and Lululemon brand.

My mother walked into the room first and his expression didn’t move much. His face was low and hanging, not surprised, almost as if she was another nurse he’d been waiting on. I came in a second later. I felt that I was a part of some grand reveal perpetuated by my mother, so I decided to lean into it. My grandpa’s expression definitely changed when I walked in.

At my meeting, I looked around at everyone before I told them that his expression wasn’t what I had expected. Maybe in some movie somewhere, about the relationship between a grandfather and his grandson, he’d stand up from his chair for the first time in ten days and hug me and smile. He’d hold my shoulders and say my name, whispering that it was good to see me.

When I walked in, he did say my name, but then it was followed by the most palpable shame I’d ever seen. He looked away and down at his socks and said, “Shit,” and crossed his legs. He averted his eyes from me and picked up his scotch glass. My mom and I approached him and then... I don’t know, nothing really. We talked to him.

I saw the new shirt on him. He was wearing it. I mentioned that to my meeting. At that point though, with my story, I felt like I had taken up a lot of time. I didn’t really feel like continuing with any more details. The meeting’s host, a guy named Mark, wanted me to continue, but he didn’t say anything explicitly. He let me trail off and then ended it with a “Thanks for sharing.” The room looked around and then someone else started talking.

I sat back and kind of zoned out. I started thinking about the lady at the deli again. I should have told that story instead because I could have ended with that funny idea of, who were the sandwiches for? Who were they for?

Then I thought, like, maybe those three, giant hero sandwiches and three diet Pepsi bottles, weren’t even for three, man-children triplets back in her Upper West Side apartment. They were actually just for her.

That would have been a funny thing to end with. The image of her eating all three of those hero sandwiches in one sitting, like, she’d heard so much about these extravagant “bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches” that she had to try them for herself!

And then I imagined something more; her in her home, not her even eating all of them in one sitting, but rather, eating one, maybe half a one, and then saving the rest for later, to eat over the course of the week. She’d have a half a hoagie and a small glass of Pepsi every morning, just to get her day going.