Mounted above the dash in Pat’s car, a GPS device tracks our pre-programmed driving route from San Diego to Boise, Idaho. Whenever we veer from the pre-planned course–even to top off the gas tank or to empty one of the small backseat bladders (which of course operate on a rotating schedule)–a disapproving female voice informs us that she is “Re-CALC-u-lat-ing Route.” This has become the theme-phrase and the ongoing joke of our journey. When plans go to shit… Recalculate!
“I am responsible… whenever an alcoholic reaches out a hand for help”… This reminder hangs over the paint-peeled door of my A.A. home group. The shabby little house, which could easily be mistaken by the uninitiated for a crack house or a bikers’ bar, tends to attract what we call “low-bottom drunks”–those of us who truly had to lose everything before we “hit bottom” hard enough to give this sobriety gig an honest shot.
We’re not a savory-looking lot at first glance–tattoos and leathers and missing teeth, accessories ranging from chains to anklet tracking-monitors, ponytails and grizzled beards and hard-worn faces framed in cigarette smoke–a veritable art gallery of police mugshots, that’s our home group. This is a room where you’ll hear “fuck” and “God” in the same sentence, from a hardass ex-con who infuses equal passion into both words. This is a room where desperate and dying people find a first spark of hope, and where the down-and-out recovering drunk can find the most surprising sources of help in the most fortuitous of unplanned moments. We call those “God-shots.”
Elena tumbled off the Greyhound in Boise at the end of a three-day odyssey from San Diego, hung-over, shaking, detoxing, jonesing for a fix, and entirely out of her element. She wasn’t supposed to be here–Ryan’s sober Uncle Dave had offered him a place to stay here in Boise if he wanted to clean up, but Elena had no such plans. Ryan could go–she’d stay and figure out where her mom was hiding their three kids. Nab the kids back, find a place (if she could find some money)–not much of a plan, but hey, a drunk isn’t much of a thinker. Ryan, however, refused at the last minute to get on the Greyhound if she didn’t come too. The only way to make him go seemed to be by getting on the bus herself, so here she found herself, ragged and sweaty at a bus station in Boise, faced with an intense, compact man sporting a Yosemite Sam moustache and informing them that their first stop in Boise would be an A.A. Meeting. Hello, Uncle Dave.
Sixty sober days after the Greyhound puked her out in downtown Boise, Elena’s five-year-old told her over the phone that she sounded different–he could tell she was happy. She seldom felt happy, though, after her nightly phone calls, with their relentlessly repeated chorus of “when are you coming to get us?” Nana won’t wake up to feed us, nobody took Carlito to school today, little Lupe has a cough, there’s dog poo all over the carpets… Calls from her sister twisted Elena’s fear into tighter knots–mom drunk, beer bottles littering the house, little brother selling Coke out of the garage, Tio Fernando missing and presumed dead, INS showing up on caller ID. No car, no driving license, no job, no money, and a thousand miles between herself and her kids, Elena couldn’t imagine how to effect a rescue. Turns out, though, God’s not a bad travel agent–and He employs His drunks to get His work done.
Tom, a member of our home group, works air traffic control, and quietly handed Elena a pair of one-way ticket vouchers after a Meeting. Sharon, who owns a thrift store, put Elena behind the counter to earn gas-money for a drive back with the kids. Don found Ryan some temporary construction-work that would cover the cost of a one-way car rental. Thanks to the home group rallying its resources, Elena had nearly everything in place for an extraction operation. All she lacked was a driver’s license, and I have one of those (reinstated)–so I’d use the second ticket to fly down with her and drive the car back.
Straightforward plan, I reassured her on the afternoon of our departure, trying to soothe her terrors over her first-ever air travel. We’re already checked in online for the flight, the car is confirmed, your mom has the kids packed and ready for you–what could go wrong? As a sober drunk later reminded me: “If you want to hear God laugh… Make plans!”
The Third of our Twelve Steps is often a rough one for us; we addicts, as a rule, tend to be control freaks by nature, and it doesn’t come easily to “turn our will and our lives over to the care” of anything besides our own brains, not even God. And for just that reason, it’s a critical step–since we can’t fix the mind we’ve got with the mind we’ve got, we’ve GOT to trust in something more powerful than ourselves to lift us out of the sucking quagmire of our addictions. Elena has written pages of answers to introspective questions–the same questions my own Sponsor had given me to guide me to that Third-Step epiphany–and the plane-ride seems a good time to ask her to share her responses with me. Maybe keep her mind off the fact that we’re riding a tin tube through the upper atmosphere. We finish up with the Third Step prayer, asking God to guide us in following His plans for us–and we figure now that God sealed the deal by scrapping all of OUR plans for the trip to see how we’d handle HIS instead.
It’s 11:30 at night, and Elena & I have navigated our way to the Rental Car outpost, where we have a car reserved and waiting. Elena is practically vibrating with excitement at the thought of being an hour away from hugging her babies, whom she hasn’t seen for nearly three months now. I hand over my driver’s license, and Elena is ready at my elbow with one of her carefully labeled envelopes of cash.
“I just need a credit card,” smiles the clerk.
“I confirmed on the phone that we could pay in cash,” I insist.
“Oh, yes,” she answers brightly; “you can PAY with cash, but you still have to leave a credit card on file.” Elena and I exchange looks, confidence morphing into consternation. We’re both broke-ass recovering drunks, and neither of us owns a credit card. I ask if there’s another agency that will rent for cash–only one, and they don’t do one-way drop-offs. I ask if I can call someone else for a card number (I can think of a couple possibilities, folks who actually own a card and would trust us to borrow the number)–but no, she needs to see the actual card, right here at the counter.
We. Are. Stuck. We know exactly Zero people in California who can show up at the San Diego airport at midnight with a credit card. We have no Plan B for getting the kids–or ourselves!–the thousand miles back to Idaho, nor even a plan to get to mom’s house where the kids are waiting. A taxi to the house would cost nearly the amount we’d set aside for the car-rental, and then what?–we’d still be in San Diego. Her mom is too drunk to pick us up, brother is high, sister can’t drive, and anyway, then what?–we’re still in San Diego. We walk outside to regroup and recalculate–time for that Third-Step Prayer again. “God, we offer ourselves to You, to do with us as You will”… ‘Cause we’ve got NO idea here.
The shuttle-bus which does rounds between the terminal and the rentals has stopped in front of us a good dozen times by now, and every third time or so the driver asks if we’re sure we don’t need a ride. “Nowhere to go, but thank you!” This is when I know for sure that Elena has a serious shot at staying sober. She’s not throwing her hands up, throwing in the towel, throwing tantrums, or otherwise freaking out–she’s sitting on the back of the bus-stop bench smoking a cigarette and laughing her ass off.
“I’m keeping you as my Sponsor, but you’re FIRED as my travel agent!”
The ring-tone I use to designate Friends-in-Recovery startles us both–it’s going on one o’clock in the morning, and Pat is as surprised by my pick-up as I am by his call. “I just meant to leave a message,” he says, “but hey, I’ve been visiting my son down in San Diego, and I heard you and Elena were going to pick up her kids down here–are you guys going to have enough room for the kids’ stuff? ‘Cause I’ve got space in my car if you want me to pick anything up.”
Elena and I look at each other. Pat is a gruff retired cop who’s not wild about kids, and we’re talking about a 17-hour drive. Nevertheless… “Is there ANY chance that you’d consider, instead of putting the kids’ stuff in the car, putting the five of US in your car?” Bless his heart, he only asks one question: “You drive a stick?”
Elena’s mom hasn’t packed any of the kids’ things (she mumbles through her stupor that she “thought she had a few more days”), but we’ve recalculated our priorities anyway–we’ll be cramming a carseat, three children, and one (thankfully petite) adult in the back seat of Pat’s small sedan, and we have just enough room for a single bag with changes of clothes for the kids–which is a helluva better position than we were in, rideless and stranded, a few hours ago. As the kids pile in, noisily negotiating seatbelts and snacks, Pat asks me if I’ve handled firearms before. Puzzled, I shake my head. He proceeds to tell me in his usual brusque manner how to fire his pistol and where in the car I can find it. “If this gets too bad,” he finishes, dropping into the driver’s seat and turning on the GPS, “USE it on me!”
He backs the car out of the driveway, and the irritated electronic navigator pipes up: “Re-CALC-u-lat-ing Route!” Elena and I bust up laughing as we buckle in for a rockin’, recalculatin’ Recovery. Long-ass drive ahead of us, but we’re learning to trust our Travel Agent.