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Progress, Not Perfection by Charles Stafford

Jennifer sat in the circle with the rest, eyes to the floor, toeing the curled edge of a warped linoleum tile with her turquoise pump. People chatted with their neighbors in hushed voices; barely audible nonsense flittered about her ears. Her ponytail was loose. She leaned back to smooth and gather her unwashed hair and retie her scrunchy.

Across the makeshift circle of metal folding chairs was this morning’s speaker, some guy named Big Jim. In The Rooms they called it “qualifying.” He was going to tell his story, share about the pit he had dug for himself and then how he climbed out. She knew that she liked the pit-digging part best, all the juicy drama that led to that deep, burning bottom. She fell prey to all those seductive and intimate details. They transported her to that forbidden place where her mouth watered and all consequences were of no consequence at all.

She couldn’t muster the same interest during the recovery part. All that inspiration and hope made her slouch and cross her arms tightly against her bulging saline superstars. Her mouth would dry up and she’d yawn uncontrollably. She didn’t work a very strong program, in and out all the time like she was. With a sigh, she crossed her ankles and looked over her chipped fingernails at Big Jim.

He was as billed—big and then some—a dark, imposing man with hulking shoulders and a meaty chest. Raised purple-black welts, shaped like bolts and blades, cut up, down, and across his forearms. She flushed; who was she to say that those were prison tats? Hadn’t she been through enough nightmares to know she shouldn’t judge anyone—especially a man—on his fucking looks? Wasn’t this just the same thing, only backward? This man was sober. Big Jim was here giving something back for Chrissakes! What she doing here other than soaking in a good, gritty show? It was like being in the audience of one of those cheesy, riotous talk shows, only AA was free! And real! No hillbillies making up shit about sodomizing their grandmothers with a fat paycheck stuck between their damp undies and muddy coveralls. No, The Rooms were for real. And that was entertainment; the kind of entertainment that made you shiver or cringe or both. By comparison, she mostly (though not always) came out on top. There were some crazy people out there, people with real problems, real regret. Despite her little hangovers and her crusty, blood-caked sinuses, she still had her shiny Freddy pumps. She still had it together, mostly.

The hot, damp air in the church basement was thick with the smell of ancient mildew. She shimmied her raincoat off her shoulders and propped herself up in the metal chair. Arching her back to stretch, her baby blue tank top rode up her waist. She felt eyes. Whatever, those were definitely prison tats.

Jim sat with his back straight and hands on his knees. He was a bald brother, dark as bittersweet chocolate, with scars like almonds and cashews sprinkled about his skull. He spoke slowly; his deep voice rumbled along the floor and up to Jennifer’s ears.

“…So we took Dumb Willy wiff us an went AWOL, you know? An’ we made Dumb Willy buy us a bottle and he did an’ we drank that bottle and made him get us mo. We smoked some shit that my boy had and then we made Dumb Willy drive. He drove us around until we come up on some woods. We made him park the car. Then we, you know, we made love to him.” Big Jim bowed his head and let it sway from side to side. “Poor Dumb Willy cried like a baby in the back seat of his own car… his own damn car. And there we were all sticky with blood and wine, lit up and smiling as if it was a good thing we done. That’s what that shit done to me. That’s what that shit done to Willy.” Jim looked up and his damp red eyes stuck on hers. He dropped his head again quickly. “Now I live wiff it, cause you know, Willy’s long gone. No ninth steppin’ him. That’s where the motherfucker took me. But now, with His help, I get a daily reprieve…”

Yup, those were prison tats, the real deal. Big Jim was the real deal. She rolled her long nails on her thighs. The show was over, but she listened and shuddered in the heat.

“I’m just so ashamed all the time, you know?” she managed.

Big Jim nodded. She’d said her name was Jennifer. She was a familiar type, wearing those shiny blue high heels and those skintight jeans that came up high and choked the meat of her calves like the back end of a scumbag. These ones always had them sweetly curved calves, smooth and sexy, ready to pump them high heels along. The calves was always the be-all and end-all on these bitches. From there, things gave way to the hard living they done. A roll of belly peeked out from under her top. The little hoop she had stuck in her navel when she was a tight young teen now hung sad and low. Her leopard print raincoat hung down off her shoulders, and a few strands of bleached hair swept past her bony blades as she skipped her eyes from one side of the circle to the other.

“I’m really trying, you know? I really am. I mean, I come to the meetings, I listen to everyone, and God knows I know I have a problem, but…” She marked each pause by tapping a metallic roll against her chair with them long, red fingernails. And now she was locked on him with pleading, painted eyes. Her cheeks were drawn inward as if she couldn’t set ’em right after all the sucking she’d done. She was familiar all right. Jim bent over and rested his elbows on his knees.

“I just have a hard time saying no, you know?” she said. He nodded again. He got that. In this damp basement, she was what she was—all worn out and stringy. But damned if she wouldn’t be the late-night queen over at the Lounge, or King’s, or shit, maybe even Billy’s Topless. This was the kind of bitch that drew a man’s last-call attention, the kind of bitch you’d kill to hear a yes from, until the morning come and all you could think was no, no, no, I gots to go, go, go. And then you worry yourself sick about what you caught, and you feel your pecker tingling funny, and getting little pinches and pains you didn’t have before. And then you hit it again ‘cause that eighty proof is the only medicine that works. And it works good. And then you do it all over again until you can’t do it no more, can’t go another step. And then the Lord come and pick you up or take you off. Either way, you lucky.

“Everything is just so hard all the time…”

Tapiddytap.

“Still, I put a few weeks together, or even a month or two here and there. I start to feel good, real good, and then, I don’t know, something comes up, life comes up, you know? The bills and this shit-hole of a town and all that fucking reality, you know?”

Tapiddytap.

“And the walls of my crummy apartment start closing in on me. I’m serious, it gets to feeling like a cage in there, and I have to get the fuck out! And the only thing that seems to stop those walls from squishing me like an ant is a bottle, or a blast, or a pipe or… or… whatever.”

Tapiddytap.

“But I pray and pray, you know? I say the serenity prayer like a million times a day, and I ask for His help, and tell myself that it’s His world, and all the other things I learn in here, and still I end up on the corner stool at King’s.”
Tapiddytap.

Jim’s nod wasn’t good-hearted like that of the others. It wasn’t from no empathy or sympathy or what have you. He was nodding ’cos he liked that corner stool at King’s. Shit, maybe he’d known her after all? All he knew for sure is that if he were still out there, he’d damn sure be tapping this bitch and it would be nothing but a thing, nothing at all. Jim shifted in his seat and looked around the circle. His mind was fucking with him again. He was out there right now, getting all juiced up, having to hide his root while this girl worked it out. The disease was a cunning motherfucker, and the bad thoughts just slipped in, thoughts just as slippery as her beat-up box. He didn’t have to be sucking coolies or knockin’ back the Boone’s Farms to be thinking like he was. The Rooms told him he had a disease of the mind, a sickness of the soul. He knew. He knew he had it bad. It was dug in deep like a tick ready to burst; stuck in his heart so hard that no matter how many twenty-four hours he put together, the urges would come. And when they came, they came on strong.

He thought of those long nails dragging down his back, taking skin, leaving tracks.

Jim shifted and crossed his legs. He called on Him to break the spell, “Thy will, not mine, Lord.” He swiped a bead of sweat off his temple.

“Sometimes it’s just so hard to be honest, you know? Like, I just lie sometimes. The lies fly out of my mouth before I have a chance to shut it. Stupid shit… like yesterday I’m down at the Sev Club and I run into a guy I know, you know, from the life. He’s got a Big Gulp in his hand and he goes, ‘wanna sip?’ and I say sure and take a sip, but I don’t even want it, you know? I’m lying, right? I’m lying all around.”

She threw her hands up. “Oh Christ! I’m so mixed up in the head right now. How do you people do this?” She ran her hands flat over her flaxen head and begged at him through dark, smudgy orbs. “I’m not even making sense. I’m sorry.”

“No, girl, you making perfect sense,” Jim said. He gave her a smile and hated himself tugging on that ponytail, tugging hard. With a nod he encouraged her to continue, but she was all done.


Charles wrote his first short story at the age of fourteen about a secret society of wealthy, unscrupulous panhandlers. He has had a passion for writing ever since, studying English Literature at the collegiate and graduate levels. His literary heroes include Hemingway, Vonnegut, Woolf and Greene. Charles opted against the starving artist route, choosing to leverage his penchant for fiction as a marketing executive for large CPG corporations. In 2008, Charles acknowledged his true passion and left marketing behind in favor of writing full time. In addition to his short stories, Charles has written a screenplay and is currently at work on his second novel. His work has appeared in Venȕ Magazine.