She works at the hardware store in town. She is tiny and walks quickly, leaning forward on her toes. When I first saw her at the store, her first day as it turns out, she was tentative and halting and did not smile and looked down on the ground when I asked her for a bag of layer pellets, almost like she did not know what they were, maybe she didn’t. She asked C. and he took me over and, as a courtesy, hoisted the bag over to the cash register where she stood, remembering what she was supposed to do, how she was to do it, with C. standing behind her watching her nervous finger whirling tiny circles over the register as she tried to find the right keys and ask the right questions and finish the sale and give me my receipt.
She smiled. Not a full smile, a hiding smile, the kind of smile you do when you are missing half your teeth and you know how it looks and you know that anyone looking knows what those missing teeth mean and judge you for it, but I looked at her and saw her beauty and saw, in her eyes, her struggle and I knew right then what she was fighting.
I have seen it before. For nine months I ran weekly writing workshops for people struggling with addiction and in those one-hour, two-hour, three-hour sessions they exposed their souls. So I knew.
I said thank you and left and closed the door behind me.
It has been almost two years now since Z. began working at the store. She smiles full on now, the mask a protection from her shame, her eyes the focus now. She smiles and calls me by my name and mispronounces it on purpose every time because she knows that’s OK and because she’s still intrigued that anyone would have a first name that was spelled as weird as mine. “Joffry,” she says, smiling. “How ya doing, Joffry?” A snort.
I want to ask her how she lost her teeth, how long the meth had ravaged her, how long she was on the edge on the edge on the edge. I want to ask her how she lost her baby, how she lost her daughter who’s now with the father’s mother. I want to know where the father is even though I know he’s long gone, and here she is in this store smiling and goofing on customer’s names. And she knows exactly where every single item is in the store.
I want to ask what she does each morning to find the courage to say no, to have to say no, on this day, every day, to really say no. I want to know what her trick is, because I know that all the ones who are successful have a trick, a fallback, like the woman who keeps a dose of Oxy in her medicine cabinet wrapped in foil, taking solace that if things get really really really bad, so bad that she can’t stand it anymore, not one more minute, she knows she can get it and crush it and melt it and inject it and everything will be OK, but it’s been five years now and the pill remains wrapped in labored, wrinkled tinfoil in her medicine cabinet behind the mouthwash. I want to ask Z. what her trick is.
I want to ask her how she finds the strength to get out of bed and come to work each day, to smile, to work so hard day in and day out, to volunteer for what she calls the “Covid-19 shift” which she takes seriously and has you immediately disinfect with the dispenser in the doorway and carefully keeps her distance as she walks parallel to you and asks you how she can help. All with a smile, a “how-are-you” smile that you can only see in her eyes.
She has incentives for her resoluteness, of course – the chance to continue her visits with her daughter and, maybe, just maybe, to get her back. But that’s the motivation. Where does she find the strength?
And why did you stop? What happened that made you say enough, enough, that made you take hold of your life and your addiction and beat it back with a broom. Like another woman I know who one night was so desperate she robbed two stores at gun point, drove to Burlington to get heroin, shot up and “coming to,” as she put it, at a traffic light in St. Albans at 6 a.m., light red, then green, then a swarm of police cars swoop in, surround her, buzzing at her, sirens screaming, yelling, and she looks down at the gun on the passenger seat and knows she has two choices and decides, no, I will go on living and so raises her hands high so they can see them.
I don’t ask Z. all these questions even though I want to because I know she is looking forward now, always looking forward, and I must honor that.
And so I say thank you, and smile with my eyes, and slowly close the door behind me. “Bye, Joffry.”