Strength in Numbers

He leaned in, His fingers craning out His mutilated earlobe near my mouth.

“I’m sorry. Didn’t hear you. What was that?”

I stared straight ahead. “He called me a joke and squatter.” He laughed to the point that He began wheezing uncontrollably, whiskey flying everywhere.

It wasn’t even a room, just a blank white space with nothing in it save for the poker table in the middle. The table was set up for 8 people with chips at each setting and two cards Texas Hold’em style. I sat in one of the chairs as He strutted around the table.

“Whew! That is awesome. What makes it even better is that –“

“I know,” I tried to cut him off. It didn’t work.

“No, no, let me finish,” He said, attempting to speak through the giggles. “This comes from a guy you KNOW has been in and out of the Program for years. Shit, the only friends he can manage to make are the new-comers cuz nobody else can stand him! And he’s saying that about you!” He said and sat down next to me.

Everything that I have learned in the last 19 months flooded to the front of my mind. One day at a time. We are not a glum lot. Every saying and cliché I’ve absorbed bubbled into my mind and it still wasn’t enough to quiet those four little words. A squatter, a joke. Quitting my job wasn’t difficult, until I dropped out of school too and suddenly had nothing. Applying for countless jobs. Countless jobs. Trying to stay busy, going to Nebraska Vocational Rehab, all that. I know I’m trying. The guys in the house know I’m trying. Tom knows I’m trying. And then Scottsbluff Mitch told me that a couple weeks ago and the other Mitch has been eating my lunch ever since. Getting a nice 8 hours sleep while I’m twisting and turning and hearing his voice in my head.



“You really shouldn’t worry about it, Andy.”

Dustin sat down at the poker table next to him and screwed the cap off his bottle of soda. Looking slightly put out, He scooted His chair back a few inches.

“Come on, man. You’re better than that and you know it.” Brad sat down on the other side of Him, pushing Him further back from the table.

“Really,” Luke reclined back in his chair, puffing on his e-hookah with his arms folded in front of him like Professor Plum. All he needed was a monocle.

“Total bullshit. And you know it.” Paul leaned into the table and considered his chips like a general contemplating where to move his troops. He stood behind Paul and began to speak again. “Ah, clam it and beat it ya vulture,” Paul said, looking directly at Him.

“You are much better than that remark.” Tom sat next to me, glanced at his cards. He was already calculating the hand. With Him looking over his shoulder at his cards, Tom elbowed Him in the gut without looking up from his hand and knocked Him to the floor.

Phil shuffled the deck and he and Christopher simply looked at me, shook their heads slightly and smiled knowingly.

“Andy, consider that remark for a second, then consider something else. A person who says that about another doesn’t have a very high opinion of themselves,” Dustin continued. “The voice we talk in is the one we hear inside our heads, saying the things we think about ourselves.”

I exhaled softly. I had been experiencing fits of violent rage in one random moment, staggering depression in another, trying to expunge the specter of what Mitch had said for almost 2 weeks. To put it another way, I was all cried out and exhausted from beating the snot out of myself. One of the Mitch’s had told me very derogatory things about the Mitch in question, the one who had said these terrible things about me. In and out of the program for years. Two-faced weasel. I knew from experience that he shunned other housemates at meetings, attempting to make himself look better. Double-talking when confronted with the things he had said to guys he didn’t know were also my friends.

“Knowing everything you do about this person, are you really going to let some offhand remarks own you like this?” Dustin asked me earnestly. “And more important, don’t you know in your heart all the reasons why you are still out of work?”

“Yes, I guess I do,”

“Then let’s hear them.”

“I have a college degree in history. And seven years’ experience in a field that has nothing to do with it. With no formal training to do anything, marginal clerical skills, but a passion for animals that isn’t going away.”

“So …”

“So I just need training to do more with animals. And most likely a job in the meantime to pay the bills.”


“And I don’t want to be on Unemployment benefits, but my parents shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of me being out of work. So I keep on keeping on until this, too, has passed.”

“And what is the most important thing? The thing that our friend here said …” he motioned to Brad who was piping on his hookah and considering a $3 card game like an ambassador to the U.N.. Brad looked up at me expectantly.

“However long it took you to throw your life away on booze and drugs …”

“Always remember that,” Brad and Dustin said in unison. He muscled in between them, putting His hands down on the table, knocking over chips as He opened His mouth again to deliver lambasting invective. Dustin cut him off.

“Don’t splash the pot,” he said calmly. “Go on, beat it. You’re outnumbered.”

Hunched over with my arms on my knees, I pulled my head up to see Dustin shuffling Him back to a door that had appeared a few feet away. When he had dispensed with Him, Dustin returned to the table. “So who’s in,” he asked, glancing at his cards.

“I’m in,” I said and anted up.

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