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[ Personal Narratives ]

excerpt from “Detroit Muscle”

By: Jeff Vande Zande


Robby drives on the Southfield Freeway. He pulls down his visor, blocking the sunlight glaring off the back windows of the cars in front of him. Listening to WRIF out of Detroit, he hammers his thumbs on the steering wheel to the beat of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.”

He glances at the clock on the dashboard and then pushes the car up to eighty miles an hour.

His phone rings. He pulls it out of his pocket, checks the screen, and rolls his eyes. He turns down the radio and takes the call. “Hey, Mom. I’m almost there.”

“Your grandfather has called me three times already. Where have you been? You left the house an hour and a half ago.”

He draws in a breath and sighs. “I went to see somebody.”

Jimmy Page’s solo whispers from the speakers backed by a haunting of drums.

“Who?” Her voice cracks on the o.

“Just somebody, okay?” He glances at the grass stain on his knee and then back to the highway.

Zeppelin fades out. Robby’s mother cries softly on her end.

“Sonuvabitch,” he mouths.

*

The Rouge River passing under the highway looks like a long mud puddle, choked into a channel with concrete banks. Robby’s hand squeezes the steering wheel. “I’m not using, okay? Stop crying. I’m still clean. I just had to go see Ty… You can’t think that every time—”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to think,” she shouts. She breathes in a staccato breath. “You spend all that time in your room. You don’t tell me anything. You sneak out—”

“Calm down. I didn’t sneak. Okay? I didn’t. I just left. You knew where I was going. I told you I was going to Grandpa’s—”

“But then you didn’t, did you?”

He switches the phone to his other ear and switches hands on the wheel. “I’m on my way there right now. You can’t worry so much, Mom. You can’t.”

She’s quiet a moment. “It feels like that’s all I can do.”

He exhales. “I gotta go. I’m getting really close to—”

“What did Ty say?”

101.1 glows dimly green from the radio display.

Robby clears his throat. “Not much.”

“What, though? He said something.”

A semi begins to pass him on his left, a looming shadow. He tightens his grip on the wheel. “He told me to fuck off.”

“Robby!”

“What?” He laughs. “You wanted to know.”

Quiet a moment, she breathes through her nose and sighs the breath out from her mouth. “Honey, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have raised my voice like I did.”

“Mom—”

“I think it’s great that you’re making an effort to talk to people. Tiffany and Ty weren’t very receptive, but you at least tried. That’s all you can do.” Her voice is cadenced and comforting.

A grey semi-trailer streaked with rust rattles and bangs outside his window. Brown and pink cow snouts press moist at the vents. A mournful, long-lashed eye stares at him. Robby looks away back to the road.

“I’m so proud of you. What you’re doing… what you’re trying to do. It isn’t easy. But it’s going to get better every day. It may not feel like it all the—”

“Mom!”

Silence.

He scratches the phone at the side of his head and then puts it back to his ear. “Please stop reading those brochures. Please. You’ve been saying the same shit to me since I got back.”

She sniffs in a hurt breath. “I’m just trying to help.”

He holds the phone away from his ear, squeezes it, and then returns it. “I know you’re trying to help. You have helped. You gave me a place to stay. You’re trusting me with your car. All of that helps. It really does. But no more motivational shit, okay? No more talk about each day getting a little bit better. All of that… it makes me feel like I’m retarded, like I’m six years old or something.”

“Okay,” she says. “I’ll try not to anymore. But I need to know what you need from me. Tell me that at least. None of this is easy for me, either. I’m just as lost—”

“Just give me a little breathing space. Don’t stare at me like I’m going to relapse any time I leave the room. Just trust me a little bit. Don’t think that you always have to be doing something or saying something to support me.”

A motorcycle whines past on his right going at least ninety miles an hour. The rider threads the bike between cars, leaning his body to the left or right, making it look easy. Robby watches his zigzag disappearance.

“Okay,” she says, “I can do that. But then I need you to do something for me, too.” She pauses. “I need you to tell me how you’re doing sometimes. I need you to let me know what you’re feeling or thinking. Don’t keep me guessing so much. I’m not talking all the time, but just sometimes, so I don’t feel in the dark so much.”

He watches the last traces of the motorcyclist.

“Robby?”

He nods. “Yeah, okay, I can try to be better about that.”

The highway flashes from shadow to light to shadow as he passes under overpasses. The semi full of cows starts up an onramp toward eastbound I-94. The Southfield Freeway becomes Southfield Road. Small Allen Park homes line the side of the highway.

“Good,” she says. “That will help.” She pauses a moment. “So… what are you thinking or feeling?”

“Are you kidding?”

“Just humor me, okay? Just this time.”

He takes a deep breath and puffs his cheeks as he exhales. “I think I’m doing all right. It’s been a shitty week, but I’m hanging in there.”

She clears her throat and sniffs a breath. “And… and no cravings?”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

A moment passes.

“Honey, you are doing so—”

“Mom.”

“Okay.” She laughs. “Okay, I’m sorry. I won’t… I’m just glad to hear that you’re doing okay.”

He forces a smile. “So far so good. One day at a time, right? Each new day is a step forward. Breathe in, breathe out. I got to remember that today is the tomorrow that I worried about yesterday. My clean life is closer than I—”

She laughs. “Okay, Mr. Smarty Pants. Just get to your grandpa’s before he calls me again. You know how he can get.”

He nods. “Almost there. I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Okay, bye honey. I love you so—”

“Bye, Mom.” He hangs up the phone and sets it on the dashboard. A house with boarded up windows flashes by. Reaching under the driver’s seat, Robby pulls out an orange pill bottle. He holds it between his finger and thumb, balancing it on top of the steering wheel.

It gives off a jack o’ lantern glow in the sunlight.

When he shakes it a few times, it makes the sound of a nearly empty maraca.

Arching his hips up from the seat, he stuffs the bottle deep into his front pocket. He flips his bangs from his face.

AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” plays faintly. He turns it up and plucks the steering wheel with the first two fingers of his right hand.

He passes under the shadow of I-75’s overpass and out into the blinding sunlight on the other side.


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