Varden sat on a terra cotta leather sofa with his hands cupped tightly together and his back ramrod straight. Water trickled from a tabletop fountain inside the contemporary office decorated with faux painted walls of varied hues blended to match the modern décor and the teak-framed medical school diploma.
“I’m not sure what to say,” Varden acknowledged to Doctor Lacy, the young female psychiatrist he found attractive enough to tolerate for more than five minutes at a time. Reluctant to open up about his life, he felt compelled to say something to fill the silence. But his personal life was personal. And any facet of his past that he chose to share, he would do so with discretion.
“Why don’t you start by making yourself more comfortable,” Doctor Lacy suggested. She parted a lock of straight hair from her light brown complexion and flashed a cheery, cover-girl smile. A notepad rested on her knee-length skirt that covered the top of her slender legs. “Relax, Mr. Varden. This isn’t a dental visit. No shots or drills, I promise.”
“You’re not what I expected,” said Varden. He parted his hands and leaned against the sofa’s rolled panel arm. His fingers tapped at the brass nail heads.
“And what were you expecting?”
Varden avoided prolonged eye contact, unwilling to glimpse the enemy for more than a second at a time. “Someone older. More mature.”
“Define ‘more mature.'”
“An old lady with a double chin and glasses.”
Doctor Lacy wrote notes in shorthand.
“What are you writing?” Varden asked bluntly.
“Notes about our conversation. Does it make you uncomfortable?”
“Mr. Varden, there are no right or wrong answers in these sessions. Anything you share with me is kept confidential.” Doctor Lacy lifted her notepad from her lap and crossed one knee above the other. “Are you still taking the new antiviral medication I prescribed?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“I’m a medical doctor, Mr. Varden. I take a heuristic approach to my work. The more I understand about your physical as well as your psychiatric health, the better equipped I am to help you.”
Varden stood up to leave. “I need to get back to the house.”
“No one’s forcing you to be here, Mr. Varden. My office will invoice your health care provider whether you decide to stay or not. The decision is up to you.”
Varden returned to the sofa. He wanted to bolt for the door, but he couldn’t. Not yet. Not without some semblance of closure. “It breaks down like this,” he started with his confidence on the rise. “There are some aspects of my life I feel more comfortable discussing than others.”
“That’s a perfectly normal reaction. I think you will find over time this process does get easier for you.”
“There’s nothing you or anyone else can do to cure me,” said Varden.
Doctor Lacy shook her head slowly. “True, from a physiological perspective. But that doesn’t mean you stop fighting. It’s important that you take the antiviral meds. Every day. If the side affects are too pronounced, I can adjust the dosage for you.”
Doctor Lacy made a note. “Tell me more about your work. How is that affecting you?”
“You’re the shrink. Aren’t you supposed to tell me?”
“Do you leave the job at work or do you take it home with you?”
“I run a halfway house,” said Varden. “I baby-sit ex-convicts living under the same roof. Work and home are one and the same for me.”
“That must be stressful.”
“I take the good with the bad.”
“Do you resent them for what happened?”
Varden clenched his fists. He turned his attention to the window beside the desk and stared at the clouds. “Wouldn’t you?”
“These men under your supervision are not the same men who hurt you.”
“I never said they were.”
“Yet you still hold them accountable.”
Doctor Lacy met Varden’s gaze without blinking. “Why did you choose this line of work?”
“It’s what I know. And it pays the bills.”
“Any job can pay the bills. The question is why do you insert yourself in such an openly stressful environment?”
Varden turned the tables. “Why do you do what you do?”
“I like my work.”
“So do I,” said Varden. “You’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Doctor Lacy tapped the two-hundred dollar pen on her knee. “Let’s talk about your life outside of work. What keeps you busy in your free time?”
Varden rubbed his hands together. “My schedule doesn’t come with much free time. Sometimes I catch a movie or a quick pick-up game on the court. I read a book now and then. Sometimes I catch a game on TV.”
“Do you ever associate with ex-convicts outside of work?”
Doctor Lacy scribbled in her notepad. “How long have you been divorced?”
“How is that relevant to anything?”
“Six degrees of separation, Mr. Varden. Everything we experience in life is relevant to something else in one way or another.”
“Twelve years,” said Varden. He shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.
“Around the time your daughter disappeared?”
Varden stood up. “We’re done here.”
“I thought you were stronger than that.”
“Don’t play me, Doc. You think you know me? My life? You don’t know anything about me or my family.”
“That’s what I’m trying to understand.”
“Then understand this: I’m not here to be your puppet or your first private practice experiment. I did my homework too. You’re barely four years out of school and eighteen months beyond a funny farm residency.”
“You think I’m inexperienced?”
“I think you pretend to be something you’re not.”
“Is that what really bothers you,” Doctor Lacy pushed back, “or is there something more pressing you need to talk about?”
Varden put his hands on her desk to exert a position of power. “Don’t twist this around.”
Doctor Lacy dropped her notepad on the desk and stood up. “I’m not judging you, Mr. Varden. I’m trying to help you. If that concept is too difficult for you to grasp, I invite you to leave and go find another shoulder to cry on.”
Josh turned the sofa cushions upside down, relentless in his quest to find a single cigarette and put an end to his incessant craving.
He dug between the cushions and found a used Band-Aid, a popsicle stick, and an empty stamp book.
He groped his hands in the cracks along the frame to find pennies, gum wrappers, lint, and a moldy pacifier—but not a crumb of tobacco from the hundreds of packs he’d opened on the sofa in the last several months.
He searched the space behind the stove and the back of the kitchen cabinets while Sheila’s baby cried in the adjacent room, frustrated by hunger pains and a soiled diaper.
He checked the junk drawer in the kitchen, the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, his gym bag and anywhere else a stray cigarette might hide; even one he smoked but didn’t finish; one that broke in half and went unnoticed.
He weighed his desperation against the consequence of a run to the store, knowing Sheila would prune his balls if she came home early and found her baby left alone.
He pawed through the trash can for his ash tray litter and the empty pack he’d tossed earlier. He cursed himself for not buying a second carton when he had the chance. His throat ached. His chest felt tight. The shakes came back with a vengeance.
Against the advice of his sponsor, he’d traded one addiction for another to help him balance the highs and lows that came with prolonged withdrawal. For the most part it worked. The good days were good. The bad days were tolerable. But lately the girlfriend, much like his nicotine craving, became increasingly difficult to manage. She failed to understand the burden her kid put on their relationship. There were too many baby chores to keep track of and too many nights without sleep. As time wore on, his patience wore out. He felt more like a prisoner in his own home, forced to suffer while he waited for Sheila to return from class.
He downed a cold beer from the fridge, but the alcohol had no affect on his thirst for lung candy. He needed a cigarette.
He grabbed his wallet and keys, prepared to make a run to the store before Sheila got home. Down and back in under five, he convinced himself.
Sack up and be a man for once in your life.
Sheila would never know. He would tell her he found the extra pack in a drawer. Logan would be in his crib where she’d left him. Life would go on without a hitch. Problem solved.
Josh paced by the worn sofa. Warm air basted the room from the broken air conditioner, causing him to sweat profusely. The baby’s incessant crying heaped more frustration on an already intolerable situation.
Josh had made big mistakes in early years and refused to commit another one by leaving Logan unattended, even for five minutes. Josh knew the baby cried for a reason and would continue to cry until someone changed his diaper and plugged a bottle in his mouth.
Josh marched to Logan’s crib and gave a loud shah! to the three-month-old flush with tears. “Stop crying!”
The frightened baby cried louder.
Josh left the room and stormed out of the trailer. He searched his car for a cigarette and came up empty. He put his hands on the car keys in his pocket with the gumption to drive away. But he couldn’t. Not in light of the vow he’d made to himself to turn his life around by making smart decisions. And leaving Logan alone, even for a few minutes, wasn’t one of them.
He kicked the car and slammed his hand on the roof. He could hear the high-pitch wailing from outside the trailer before he went back inside.
“I got you,” he said as he approached the crib. He carried the crying infant to the changing table and unbuttoned the one-piece suit at the bottom. He inhaled through his mouth to avoid the stink from the loaded diaper.
Butt naked from the waist down, Logan kicked and screamed in defiance of the hunger pains that ruled his world.
Josh pressed his arm across Logan’s tiny chest to keep him from rolling over. He tossed the soiled diaper in the trash and plucked a handful of aloe wipes from the shelf underneath the changing table. “Hold still!”
He wiped the baby’s bottom and secured a fresh diaper between the squirming legs. Then he draped a burp cloth over his shoulder and brought the boy against his chest.
In the kitchen, he warmed a bottle in the microwave and tested the formula on his wrist.
Way too hot.
He added tap water to cool the mix, coddling the hysterical infant with his free arm.
You should have bailed when you had the chance. You could be on your second cigarette by now. You brought this on yourself. Took on more than you could handle.
The baby smelled the milk—and the raw emotion coming from the stranger in his presence.
Josh shoved the bottle at Logan’s tiny mouth, nudging the nipple back and forth along the pink gum line. Formula seeped from the pin prick opening and dripped on Logan’s face and neck.
Josh rocked the baby in his arm. The boy wasn’t his responsibility, it was Sheila’s. Her baby, her problem. Logan would drink from a bottle, but only if Sheila fed him, and even then, he usually threw up more than he swallowed.
Josh set the bottle on the kitchen counter and bounced the baby on his knee. He needed one cigarette. One precious cancer stick, regular or light, menthol or not, filtered or unfiltered. He could take the baby with him, kicking and screaming to the mini-mart, but Sheila had the car seat in her Mustang.
Josh shook the bottle of baby formula and tested the temperature on his wrist. Not too hot. Not too cold.
He jabbed the nipple up and down inside the baby’s mouth to entice the boy to eat.
He’d agreed to baby-sit Sheila’s kid, not put up with dirty diapers and the endless crying.
He bounced the fragile infant harder and harder, slapping Logan gently on the back to vent a simmering temper.
When Logan refused the bottle again, Josh hurled it at the sink. A fit of rage unfolded in slow motion. Any concept of right or wrong faded quickly with his loss of self control, his conscience disengaged from the veracity of his actions.
“Shut up!” Josh yelled at the screaming infant, shaking the baby harder and harder until the crying finally stopped.