By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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The day hadn’t begun well, but it was just another day in a long line of mean, anxious hours. Time mashed in on her like a couple of hands folded hard in prayer. You could call it a religious experience or you could call it withdrawal. Either way it seemed like piss-poor pay for wanting to fly. She spent days and nights with the filaments in her legs dancing: kick, kick, kick. She kicked the sweaty sheets in the dance of deprivation. Then the phone rang and the voice asked her to come to lunch at Bar Tejas. She said yes because it was a chance: a sunny opening leading to normal people. She wanted a break. Even hell can be a rut.
Nights she lay on the couch locked in spasms, the worst at about two in the morning, her legs and arms flailing like a dime-store toy played with too long. When her exhausted muscles quit, she’d read, and when the print started jumping, she’d listen to the symphony. She thought it might be Bach or Beethoven. The music started the third day without sleep, audible only to her; it played and played, accompanied by thin veils of fog blowing slyly past the corners of her eyes. Music and fog. Music and fog. Eventually, gray daylight beamed through the miniblinds and she’d be shuddering in the bathroom, apologizing to the thick air around her. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, she’d whisper, not knowing who she was talking to but thinking it was God. God never answered. Maybe he didn’t care that for twenty-two years, Claire, who had begun as a sack of chemicals, had added more: she poured alcohol on top — sort of like a sundae — just trying to get it right.
Since she was sixteen, Claire had been trying to soothe the raw, screechy nerves that wrapped her body like silver freeways. She rubbed white powder into her gums, sipped on thick, frozen vodka; she was not present for much of her life and it suited her fine. The problem was she’d black out. Other junkies and drunks envied her: Man, I wish I could, wish I didn’t know. You’re wrong, she told them. She woke up in the middle of the week like a zonked-out Nancy Drew, gathering clues about what had happened: bruises on her legs, strange bills in the mail, a ding on the car. One time, when her lids creaked open, she saw her wrists already starting to crust with dark red scabs; an X-acto knife lay in the corner. So that’s how it’s going to be, she thought, one half-assed attempt after another. She came to another morning with a patch of sunlight about the size and shape of a Kleenex next to her face, pills all over, and a big wet spot on the carpet she never did figure out.
She called AA. The man on the phone arranged to meet her before the meeting. Later, all she remembered was that she kept trying to pay everyone. She had dollar bills mixed in with the pill bottles at the bottom of her bag. She gave them out in handfuls. It was the last day. After that there were no days.
Her body said no, punishing her with tears, sweats, spasms, cramps, jerks. Fluid drenched the sheets as she jounced on the bed. When that stopped, her brain launched an out-of-focus home video of every failure, every lie, every heartbreak: her whole rotten life played out endlessly with bad actors. Claire got on the phone and called InterGroup. “Just talk to me,” she begged. “It doesn’t have to make sense.” It didn’t. Clutching the receiver, Claire listened to recipes, prayers, gossip, binges, and drunkalogues. It’s gonna be okay, they all said.
Sitting in a kitchen chair, her teeth chattering like a baboon, she watched her forty-one-year-old legs kick of their own accord. It made her thirsty. If she’d been able to drag herself to Red Colman’s for a fifth, she’d have done it. But she kept seeing, in her mind’s eye, the clerk screaming at the sight of her desperate, greenish face. So, sitting in a sweaty nightie with cigarette ashes down the front, she thought it was pretty damned amazing that the phone rang and Joe Avalon asked her to lunch.
It took a hundred and twenty minutes just to take a shower and make up her face. It seemed like she had spent her life in bathrooms: puking, doing lines, lying on the tiles feeling the cool floor beneath her skull, praying next to the tub. She came undone like a loose knot and put herself back together in bathrooms. Thank you Jesus, she said when she got on her eyeliner. Maybe she could have lunch after all. She shuffled out of the bathroom on clay feet.
She sat on the bed, panting like a marathon runner, trying to keep her head blank and empty, like a big water-colored balloon: just air. A perfect circle. Emptiness. But thoughts kept streaming into her mind, barbs on every one of them. She’d disappointed everyone, she decided. Disappointment isn’t too bad a thing: just sad and gray like a wasted Sunday. All the things you were going to do and never did.
She got up slowly and walked to her closet. What outfit flatters withdrawal? She put on a black T-shirt with a flying television set emblazoned on the front, blue jeans, and silver loafers: all medium-sized. She was just an average-height, middle-aged woman looking the worse for a lot of wear.
Where had Joe Avalon come from? Faces gummed together in her mind like cheap candy in a box. Then she remembered. The temple. The part of her life she’d kept clean as blank typing paper: she never went to meditation stoned, never sat zazen after even one shot of vodka. It was like painting had been before she started smoking weed in the studio, doing what she said she’d never do: paint when she was wrecked. At the zendo she slurped golden almond tea, sat, waited for the gas flame of kensho, the great I am, the whatever that would allow her to stop like a watch run down. She was sitting in the front room of the temple, surrounded by paper cherry blossoms stuck in cheap vases, when she met Joe. He was big, with bad teeth and white hair, just come off the road after two days driving. He clutched a jar of honey in his hand. The roshi told Claire he’d been sober for thirty years.
By this time, Claire knew, even with the works jammed up by cocaine and boo, that you could never predict in what forms angels might appear. Joe had studied Zen fourteen years to her twenty-five. She sat two cushions over from him in the zendo, heard him exhale loudly, felt bad when the jikki hissed at him, Breathe quietly! Maybe he’d given her the idea to call AA in the first place, in which case he wasn’t Joe Avalon but the angel Michael: her very salvation. Maybe it was time to be saved again. So Claire said yes into Joe’s ear through the long ropy telephone wires stretched across Dallas.
Time was what Joshu said it was — your skin. You didn’t bob along on it, as if it were the Atlantic Ocean. Time was glued to you like your crazy family, your baby teeth, your freckles, your brittle bones. Time was slow because Claire was slow: a woman driving carefully through town, not quite sure how to get where she was going. Her T-shirt stuck to her shoulders and her pink eye shadow was smeared.
Squinting through the window of her three-year-old Mercury, she felt pure. Even though she was seeing fog and hearing an invisible symphony play, Claire was shriven and holy. It was like going to the dentist on no sleep, too tired to care about a root canal. She didn’t care how she’d seem to Joe. Psychic barnacles had been scoured off over the past few days. She was scraped down to an essence. Raw. And there, glory be, was the Bar Tejas shining in the October heat like a mirage, but real. She steered to a parking place, in front of a brick wall, where Bush Sucks was lettered in black spray paint. Claire paused to admire such an excess of concern. She didn’t care who was president, had voted only once in her life.
Joe was in a middle booth by the window, grinning at her when she came into his line of vision. Hey, he mouthed at her, hey, hey, hey. Inside, the bar was cool and dark, full of black shadows, the way a place should be after the hot sun. The bartender glanced at her, bored. She must be a stranger here, Claire decided. Maybe she hadn’t been here before, written a note to a stranger, gone to a place she couldn’t find again, arrived home in the clammy dawn not knowing how she’d gotten there. She felt gratitude, like tears, clog her throat. Two drag queens sat at a table: one of them weeping buckets of big black tears, his makeup a ruin. Claire walked straight over to Joe.
“So how are you?” Joe asked, grinning hugely.
“Not real great. I’m sobering up. Hurts like a mother.”
“Haw, haw, haw,” Joe hollered, slapping his big hairy hand on the table like it was the best joke he’d heard all day. She grinned weakly.
“You’ll be okay,” Joe told her. “Haven’t seen you at the temple lately, was why I called.”
“That’s the reason,” Claire said, sliding into the booth to face him. “I couldn’t walk until today. I had the shakes bad. I didn’t know if I could move at all until you called. I guess I’m glad you did.” Her shoulder blades, like bony little wings, punched into the wood behind her. The waitress, pretty and temporary as a gardenia, wandered over to them.
“You want something to drink?” she asked.
“Coupla coffees,” Joe said. “And menus. I’ll have one of your cigarettes,” he told Claire, grabbing her pack.
He lit up a Marlboro, shook out the match, and looked at her with clear blue eyes. “We lost our monk,” he said.
Claire gaped. “Really?” She remembered the monk padding around the temple in drug-store track shoes, his black robe crackling around him. He was a slightly homesick guy from New Mexico. Once he told Claire that when he’d joined the monastery, he’d brought his hair dryer with him. Every morning, a little before three o’clock, he’d gotten up to fix his hair until the abbot found out. Claire had been charmed at such a small, sweet secret.
“How?” she asked. “Did the monastery call him back because we aren’t really a temple?” She felt irrationally guilty. Maybe if I’d gone more, she thought. Maybe if I’d brought in some new people. She pictured the temple, a ramshackle white house in a bad neighborhood, and then let out a breath at her own craziness. Zen didn’t try to get converts. It attracted. Zen monks, even masters, just hung out: sitting zazen, eating pickled vegetables, waiting for folks to show up. Not many had.
Joe glowered and thrummed his thick fingers on the table.
“Remember Anna?” he asked. “She moved into the temple before me. And I want to tell you I voted against her. Everyone got on my case but I did it. Anyhow, she made a pass at the monk and he caught it, I guess you’d say.”
“Holy smokes,” Claire breathed. “Anna! She was the soji.”
“I voted against that too, even if it is a shit job. Now tell me, how did she strike you?”
She tried to remember. Anna was thin and artless, a woman who wore black sweats and always had a friendly word for Claire. She envied Anna for being able to sit twice a day, endure Zen weekends, sit sesshins for eighteen hours at a stretch, sit, sit, sit, sit, until surely her legs cramped and gnarled. But Claire had been suspicious, too. When she asked Anna how long she’d done Zen, Anna batted her colorless lashes, poured Claire another spot of tea, and said, “Three weeks. I was doing bhakti yoga before that, but I like this better.” It didn’t make sense. Zen wasn’t something you liked better than something else. One day you just found yourself doing it because there was nothing else to do. Kind of like sobering up, Claire realized. But she mistrusted her own perceptions. Anna was living the life. Anna sat like a rock in the zendo. Her mind was probably as blank as an abandoned drive-in movie screen. Claire sat like a rock herself and thought about every guy she’d ever screwed.
Finally, she said to Joe, “I thought she was daffy. Something was going on with her. She was just waiting to happen.”
Joe lit up like a jukebox. “Now that’s exactly right!” he crowed. He leaned forward and a whiff of Old Spice curled off him. “You know, the monk’s a very confused young guy. He just got snared, and I suppose I’m being a chauvinist when I say, hell hath no fury like a woman whatever.”
Claire, thinking of the past few days, said, “Hell hath fury whatever.”
“Whatever. Anyhow, this has been going on quite some time. He feels just awful. Talked about quitting the monastery. I said to him, just walk through it. Like the wind through the trees. But he couldn’t hear it. Anna called his mother.”
Claire felt lightheaded, as though big eagle claws had just released her head though she hadn’t known they gripped her until now. She tried to picture the monk’s mother talking anxiously on the phone in a dry New Mexico town, staring out the window as though she could see her son, small and black in the desert.
Joe took another cigarette and tapped the end on his thumbnail. “It gets worse,” he told her. “Anna told his mother he’d raped her. Implied it at least. Then she calls the Master. Poor old guy. He’s eighty-five, y’know. He’s about ready to drop his body. Here’s Anna calling with this crazed tale of rape in Dallas. What’s he gonna do with that?” Joe looked at Claire like she might be able to tell him.
“My God,” Claire said, “the world’s just inside out. How’s Sam taking it? He was the jikki, right? He and Anna were pretty tight.”
“Little Zen pals,” Joe said bitterly. His face darkened. “He stuck up for her. It’s been pretty tense at the temple, I can tell you that. All of us walking around on eggshells.” Claire noticed absently that tufts of white hair stuck out of the v-neck of Joe’s aqua sweater.
“Wattaya think?” he asked, while she was thinking what a nice old guy he was.
“I’m going to have the tortilla soup,” she said, almost able to taste it. “I don’t know, Joe. It’s a big relief.”
Joe regarded her, puzzled, almost angry. “How come? How come it’s a relief?”
Claire sagged back in the booth, feeling her muscles letting go, her appetite returning, thinking that maybe, after all, she was going to be able to live out her life.
The waitress reappeared. “The tortilla soup,” Claire told her. “Two orders. What I mean,” she said to Joe, “is that all the time I was at the temple I was chewed up with guilt. I thought it was because of my drinking and doping, but it wasn’t.”
“Yeah. Zen guilt. That I couldn’t be centered, in the now. I was fighting, always fighting. This whole deal is a weird blessing. It is. I thought I was the only one who didn’t know how it should be.” The air seemed darker and cooler around them — like a priest’s breath, a benediction. Joe looked at her like he was about to say something, his mouth slightly open, but Claire rushed on. “I guess what I wanted never existed. It is what it is.”
“Well, it shouldn’t have happened,” Joe said, flicking one thumbnail against another.
“But it did. It happened. With everyone trying for enlightenment. Maybe the right thing goes on all the time and no one knows it.”
“I shouldn’t have told you,” he said, looking worried. “I was gossiping. But it’s all been bottled up inside me. I’ve really been valuing non-attachment. Look where this gets you.”
“It gets you where it gets you,” Claire said, “and maybe that’s the point. Just to go on.”
The waitress brought the soup. Claire and Joe bent over the bowls hungrily: two people who’d said enough, who’d skidded close to a quarrel, and found peace at the last minute. The time passed pleasantly, and for Claire, the succeeding hours were much better. Days were to come, one after the other, and at last, like a light in the window, Claire would feel a stirring in her heart she could name hope.
She never saw much of Joe after that. Later, she’d think about him and wonder if he’d done his part and moved on. She stayed sober and, as her head cleared, she realized she’d made a decision to save her own life. Others, newly sober, sometimes talked to her after meetings and asked her how she did it, as though she might have a big secret. They thought there was a single instant when she’d packed it in. Maybe they were right, but she couldn’t talk about it. There wasn’t much of a story until that bright October day when, sitting in a restaurant, she’d bent over a spoonful of tortilla soup and seen her own face shining in it like a dime, like the morning sun. How could she say that some folks fell from grace and others rose to grace and it was hard to tell which was which?