Virgil McFarland called me eighteen times in one night. The honey-tongued woman on the recording said nine of those times the same thing into my voice mail, “an inmate from the North County Penitentiary is trying to reach you, press one to accept this call, press the pound sign to deny.”
When you pressed one it took you to another prompt, in order so that you could enter money to a prepaid account. Calls from the penitentiary were a dollar a minute. I pressed one the first three times he called, but after that didn’t answer anymore. The prepaid prompt only took Visa or MasterCard, and all I had for money was my dad’s borrowed American Express.
I hadn’t seen Virgil since 2002, and that was eleven years ago. That night we’d been in the club where we both had hung out separately and at different times, never having seen one another there before then. It was the last time I saw him and the last time I ever saw Jim. Jim was Virgil’s best friend and someone I had loved for a long, long time. Jim told me they would be at the club but he was nodded out between two video games when I got there. It was sad, but nice to see Virgil and them. When we were friends years before that we had spent our time together in other places, not old enough to go to clubs. The edge of the ocean where the water meets the sand. On bikes with banana seats or hunched over ten-speeds with handle-bars like horns of a ram. The carny booth on the neon pier that Virg’s dad used to run. His house in Costa Rica under breathy jungle trees. My house on eighth street where I lived with Jim when we were eighteen, when Virgil was still in high school and would sleep on our couch, and where from the front porch you could see the part of the boardwalk that on some nights anchored kites to dance in the way up dark like electric stars.
I was thirteen years and one day sober and clean the night he called me from the penitentiary. I had been so sad because when he got locked up I never thought I’d hear from him again. I tried to find a way to get his information to write him letters and knew I could do so through some old friends on Facebook. Then one of those old friends, Rooster, found me. This was a beautiful coincidence because if you think about it, Virgil, Jim, and Rooster were the only three boys from the beach that I knew from age eleven on, back when we used to body-board all day until it was low tide and time to head up, salt-skinned and sun-tinged, to the snack bar for ice cream sandwiches or popsicles to take to the pool. Rooster introduced me to Jim and Virgil all the way back then. So for Rooster to call me for the first time in eighteen years on the day of my thirteenth anniversary being sober and clean, and to call me because he himself had just decided to go to AA and get better, too, and then to tell me that not only was Virgil still trying to stay clean in jail but that I could talk to him, too? Well, this really was a beautiful coincidence. Jim’s way of reaching out to tell us—life’s as aligned as meandering bows, floating in space on the tail of a kite, looking like connected stars.
Virgil was in jail for twenty-one kilos of cocaine which was a probation violation. He had been sober and clean himself for three months before he slipped. We had gotten back in touch when I moved to Southern California. Or had driven here, had arrived here on a whim answering the same kind of running in my blood that used to lead me barefoot through the alleys in the old beach town where I first knew those boys. I worked in a drug and alcohol rehab receiving clinical psychotherapeutic training when he first called. I can say with certainty that the disease of addiction often requires a person at least eighteen months of what we call pre-contemplation before they get to the stage of being capable of making lasting changes in recovery. That’s why I call it a slip, you slip in and out of recovery during those first eighteen months. Sometimes you slip in and out several times in just one day. The human mind is a funny place to end up trapped. For an addict especially it’s wired and set and always ready to be tripped.
Jim died in 2007. I was in the shower two days after I found out about it and sure as if he were standing right in front of me he came to me, same flat junked-out face same wide open O mouth, staring in to me with eyes black from where there used to be stars. He was just standing there, saying sorry. The sight of Jim standing there was for many years much easier for me to keep inside, in the sick place where the cyclone path had cleaved a black cracked facelessness down the center of who I was. Sealing off the black cracked place made me feel like someone let go of the string that attached my head. I could disconnect that way from somewhere below my neck and just feel my body cool and sort of floating there, numb.
Same time that Rooster found me then the recorded lady had called on behalf of Virg in prison I also had to be in therapy, too, also to be able to become a therapist. We talked about it. It made me sad for me, my body detached and head floating above me like that. It also gave me hot heart and wet eyes just to know they were alive. I once had a friend commit suicide instead of going to prison, so I’d spent many moments wondering if Virgil was alright. Sometimes I even prayed about him to Jim. But mostly I just hated Jim. I guess that’s because it’s just him, faceless up there, the expressionless looking down he does from all that sky. It’s funny that life will break and mend your heart using the same experience all at once. That’s the thing about coincidences, which is life’s way of making sure you understand that it’s making use of time despite you not realizing it. It steadily moves you along, and also keeps you strange and anchored to the same old place until you’re willing to look down and see where you’ve been tied.
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bless you and all the incarcerated, and those we love and loose along the way of life