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The title says it all...except...it's not funny....
A funny thing happened on the way to AA...
I was late. I had every intention of getting to the AA meeting on time, eight o'clock, just like the anonymous person on the hotline had said. The fact that I hadn't touched alcohol in many years was not a factor in my decision to attend a meeting. I had other reasons for going and I did not even know what they were yet.
I had a pretty good idea where the meeting was; just a couple of miles from my house. But, the time on my cell phone was crazy wrong, off by a half an hour. I checked it again, just when I thought I had plenty of time to get to the meeting the time suddenly was correct; 8 o'clock straight up. Determined, I beat feet out of the gym, not bothering to clean up. My white soccer-mom van pushed through traffic like a chariot! I was going to the meeting come hell or hurricane.
I turned up 3rd Ave, passing my parish, the early summer dusk falling quickly. I still had my sunglasses on, always thinking I looked sexier in them, I kept them on way too late past darkness, yet, I could still see that something, coming up the 3rd Ave hill, was not right.
Walking, dead center, on the yellow line of the road, a young man, no more than 23 or 24, moved with steady, straight-ahead determination through the two lanes of traffic. 3rd Ave is busy every workday just a few hours earlier, not so busy now, yet this young man, naked from the waist up, managed to have a short line of traffic bunched up on either side of him.
Even in the deepening evening, I could see his eyes were sunken, blood red and despairing. He wore socks that were black as silt, but were once white. His shoes were not his and never meant to be his. One shoe was not fitted on to his heel and he dragged it along. He wore nothing above his waist but faded tattoos that I couldn't make out. They weren't names, or pictures...just ink wounds. Below his waist, it was evident he was wearing two pairs of boxers; the under ones were red and they were topped by another oversized pair. Corona bottle emblazoned boxers were his "shorts du jour". I looked him over intently, seeking as many clues, signs and wonders as I could to find who was this lost boy in my new city.
He had his plain brown, wavy haircut not "too long ago". He had shaved in the last week, and as I looked at his face I could see both cheeks were swollen at the top of each cheekbone, making him look a little like Cro-Magnon man. His lips were full, cracked and he was dirty, very dirty. The sun and stars had been his covering for a few days; that was clear by his dried out countenance.
I passed him slowly behind the other cars. I kept hoping someone would stop and try and help him, but no one did. I knew at that point, I would not make it to my first, for me, AA meeting.
I turned my car around at the first opportunity. I slowly pulled my car up beside him, rolled the window down, letting in a blast of central Florida heat. "Are you ok?", earthmama me asked. " He turned and looked at me with his bloodhound eyes, so full of pain and sickness. All he seemed to own was enough energy to motion with his head, not even a shake of the head, just a motion, to indicate a wordless "No". "Would you like help?" He turned to me again, still walking, me driving slowly beside him. Thankfully traffic had slowed down on 3rd Ave. He spoke with a blistered voice, "I want to go to St. Petersburg." And then he spoke again, "I need help." And again, "I want to die". I know if he hadn't been so dry, he would have been crying.
I drove, he walked forward, together, side by side. We covered another small distance. My car window was still half-way down; a partial portal to him and a safety zone for me.
"Why don't you go to the side of the road? If you do that, I promise I will help you."
Without looking at me, he pressed ahead a few more feet, and then he slowed his pace and abruptly stopped, his arms falling limply by his sides and he turned toward the curb. I pulled my suburban chariot to the side of the road and parked. Calling 911, I quickly asked myself how far I was willing to go for the "lost boy". The answer was "take it one step forward and commit no more than that".
The 911 operator assured me that police were being dispatched. I left the safety of the car and walked over to where he was standing. He faced forward, not turning to look at me. I stared at his profile, his eyes were so sunken, my heart sank with his eyes.
"What's your name?"
"Do you want to tell me your last name?"
"You said you wanted help and I called the police. Is that alright?"
He nodded, slowly, "Yes, m'am." Anthony began to talk with his dry, cracking voice. "I called the police three times and they didn't come. I told them I wasn't gonna make it. I said they better come quick."
With the firmness of a mother of many boys, I said I would wait with him until they came. "I won't leave you until they get here." All the while my hand was firmly on the cell phone poised to hit 911 again should the need arise....to protect myself.
It occurred to me, that my instincts to protect myself were in the "head conscious" mode, not the "gut conscious" mode. As soon as this thought came to me, he quietly said "You don't need to be afraid of me. I ain't gonna hurt you."
"I know that...knew that" I stammered."Or I wouldn't be standing here". I still felt like I should be wearing a T-shirt that said in bold letters, DON'T TRY THIS STUNT AT HOME.
"Are you high?" I asked.
"Yeah..." faded his reply.
"I smell alcohol."
"Drank a lot today."
"How did you get the money?"
"I stoled it.", he flatly admitted.
"You drank a lot...."
"Where did you come from?"
"I come from St. Petersburg."
"You walked from there?" Knowing that St. Pete was at least two hours driving distance, I could imagine it given how he looked.
"No'm. I took a bus. Got here 3 days ago."
"Have you been living outside?" Florida's hurricane season started at midnight and already the day was a roiling mix of juicy grape-colored clouds, steamy heat, unpredictable wind and eye-popping lightning.
He began to weave a little more unsteadily and I realized that though his brain was a fog of drugs and alcohol, he maintained a coherency. However, he was in a weakened condition from dehydration. I asked him to sit down on the pavement and I sat beside him. Focused on each step of my unrevealed mission, I ignored the fact that I was sitting on a red ant hill.
"I have 5 boys, some near your age. There isn't anything that I haven't seen or heard that would shock me, so you can talk to me."
No response. "I had a daughter your age. She passed away a little over a year ago. I understand terrible pain." He looked at me. For the first time he looked at me, really looked at me.
"I'm sorry for you." I think he meant it as best he could under his circumstances.
I told him that I had been having a really hard time with missing my daughter and I wanted to drink and was afraid that as bad as I wanted to drink that maybe I needed to go to an AA meeting and that I thought about drinking a lot lately and being an alcoholic...and I wanted to drink so I could forget for awhile, but then I called an AA hotline and tried to get to a meeting, but the time on my cell phone was wrong and I found him walking in the middle of the road instead because I had been running late, or I would not have seen him and it seemed as though I was supposed to be in his path and he was supposed to be in my path and I told him a good gobble of other pushing, pressing, pulsing thoughts that who knows made any sense to him and then took a deep breath and I rested. The tears squirted hotly during my canticle but were quiet ones, and were almost more from utter release then grief.
He closed his eyes and we were both quiet. He had nothing to say to my revelations and as he breathed I smelled the sour odor of wine? whiskey? beer? I didn't know, as I was a lightweight about those things.
I made another call to 911 and was assured that someone would come. By this time a half an hour had gone by. He laid down on the concrete and looked up at me. I wish I could describe the blood red, angry red, devil red of his eyes...not one of these three words are adequate.
"They ain't comin'. I called them three times. I told them to come. They ain't comin'", he repeated.
"I promised you, and I meant it, I am staying here until some help gets here. Are you hungry?"
He nodded that he was hungry.
"I'll go up the street and get you something, but I want you to promise me... you won't go back into the middle of the street and you'll wait here for me. You promise me?"
He nodded and curved his arm under his head like pillow and closed his eyes.
At the McDonalds, I tried to think of what would be best for him. The best bang for the buck was five double cheeseburgers, two bottles of water, Apple Dippers, fries, and two boxes of apple juice. I made the twenty-something girl put them all in a sturdy plastic bag in case the police didn't come, he had food for a day.
Mr. Policeman and I arrived at the same time. I ran to Anthony but not before the swarthy, middleaged policeman with too many double cheeseburgers under his belt had begun his sport with Anthony.
Officer Bianco, with peppery gusto, pushed Anthony in the side with his boot. Anthony's reaction was swift. His face down, cradled on one arm, turned away from both of us, and free hand raised, he flipped out a rigid, defiant exclamation point of a middle finger.
"I see you aren't too bad off, you little bum." Turning to me as if the "flying bird" had proved his as-yet- unmade-point, Bianco reasoned. "See, he ain't so bad off his middle finger doesn't work."
A little surprised by the initial interplay, I quickly interjected, "I'm the lady that found him in the middle of the street. Well he was actually walking the center line. I really think he is in not too good condition." My grammar and syntax were quite addled. The response of the policeman had not been what I expected. "I left him here to get some food. Can we try and get him to eat and drink something?"
"Oh I dont know, he don't look too bad to me. You got a name kid?
No reply. "His name is Anthony, Anthony Malone and he told me he's been in town three days." I had promised to help and I was helping now by speaking for Anthony.
"I was gonna say, he hadn't showed up on my radar before."
Staring at Anthony I raised the ante. "He told me he wanted to die." I was desperate that this kid's anguish, no matter if it was self-imposed, be believed. (My daughter’s greatest sorrow in her long hospitalization was not being believed by medical personnel.) This was suddenly sharp in my mind.
Officer Biancos smirked. "Oh, yeah? I think dem's da magic words. Get him Baker Act'ed and he can spend a coupla days in the hospital.” He chortled his words for the benefit of the other officers, Tony and myself.
“Sound good, Tony? Sound alright to you?" Bianco gave me a wink, a little lightweight chuckle and again with the nudge to Anthony. Not a hard push to the ribs, but still boot to body contact.
Anthony was silent, unmoving, still face down on the cement, red ants clustered around his filthy ankles and calves.
"I don't think he is as well as you think." I was being firmer, and I wanted to keep my commitment to getting Anthony in the hospital. At that moment the ambulance and paramedics arrived. Between Officer Bianco and I, we filled them in, as Anthony wasn't talking. Something told me he knew how to behave so that he would absolutely get some respite from the street. I played along too.
More police arrived, but it was clear to them that this was a situation under control. A middle-aged mom, several other policeman, paramedics and gawkers had things firmly in hand.
One paramedic, a kind-eyed young man of nearly thirty, a long blonde ponytail draped over one shoulder and a physique of Bunyan-like proportions, gently turned Anthony over. With his flashlight illuminating Anthony's rough features, what I mistook for an almost caveman-like appearance was something else entirely. What I saw for the first time, was what the paramedic saw.
"His mouth is infected and his cheekbones are broken. You been in a fight buddy?" Anthony moaned an affirmative. "Lets get vitals and an IV going." Things were beginning to move along swiftly and I was sure he would be in the hospital within the hour.
Anthony remained still, yet compliant, his breathing relaxed and it seemed even in his stillness, a relief was readable in his form.
With motherly concern, I touched his arm. "Anthony, I am going to pray for you, and if I can, I will visit you at the hospital. You hear me?" Silence. "Answer the nice lady Anthony!" Another black boot this time tapping Anthony's arm. Anthony managed a "Yeah..." and I continued my annonying petitions. "Please use this time and opportunity to get well, all the way well."
Officer Bianco sort of snorted and I knew that he had seen a wide swath of Anthonys, different colors, different ages and sizes, but all pretty much alike. I turned toward Bianco. I understood his position, knew his position, but still kept mine; that this filthy, lit-up kid was human and worth something to someone.
I could hear police noises in the background, night had fallen around us, and flashlights lit our stage-like area. Anthony was reciting a litany of the drugs he had taken for the benefit of the nice paramedic. Crack cocaine, weed, meth, basically anything he could get his hands on. I heard him talk to the blonde Bunyan Francis of Assisi about an Uncle Ray, who cared about him. He actually used the word "care". I kept all the words I heard in my heart and still focused on Officer Bianco. He returned my focus, though his was in a more unsettling way. "You know you look really familiar to me", he said. The way he looked at my mouth and into my eyes made me wish I had dressed like an Amish woman tonight instead of my now too-tight gym ensemble of low-cut beater T, black spandex pants and bright yellow Reeboks. "Uh, I don't think so. We moved here a few months ago after our daughter passed away." He shifted and did that thing you see on TV, the Barney Fife move of pulling up the gun belt. "Oh, now I understand why you stopped. You did this on account you lost your daughter." Not turning to address Anthony, but keeping his eyes on me, Officer Bianco chided, "See Anthony, I hope you appreciate what this nice lady did for you, gettin' you some food, callin' us and waitin' with you." He used his boot again to speak to Anthony as though with each nudge to his ribs, the words had greater impact. Maybe he was right. I was embarrassed by Officer Biancos words. When I stopped I hadn't thought about my Diana, I had been thinking of my boys and the various stages of maturity I had walked through with them. It was only after I had been with Anthony a little while that I began to think of her, though the longest rest I had from these thoughts of Diana was never more than fifteen minutes at a time....at best. I thought of my daughter's battle's with alcohol as a younger woman only after I had stopped and spent some time being in the "ministry of presence" with Anthony. I began to think about all the loss before THE LOSS. I had almost lost my beautiful, talented girl more than a few times to alcohol....but that was not why I stopped to help Anthony. I stopped Anthony because grief had reached a fever pitch with me in the last weeks as I neared the two year mark. I thought I was going to be an alcoholic too, wanted to become one, dreamed of often, found an AA meeting, ran late, ran into Anthony, saw no one was helping him and knew I had to do it myself, because the hard, hard things seem to always fall in my lap and it was wiser to face the hard things than run away and Anthony was a hard thing, my boys were hard things, my darling daughter was a soft lovely lamb and her death was a hard, hard horrible thing. For that moment, on 3rd Avenue, I made a promise, for just this evening, I would not run away from pain, grief or even for a few days, from Anthony.
Officer Bianco and another policeman brought out a bottle of hand disinfectant. Loud enough for Anthony to hear, Bianco told me I had better use it, and to not get close to him, because "even air borne germs are around him." To be polite, and not because I was scared, I squirted the silly string of cleaner on me. Bianco's words reminded me of all the times that the nurses and doctors had spoken loudly, callously about Diana's condition in front of her, but not to her.
I told him it was too late, that I had patted his unclothed back when he was down.They put Anthony in the ambulance. I felt good that he had found a guardian angel in his ride to the hospital.
The police dispersed. Officer Bianco decided he had seen me at church until he found out I was a Catholic convert and he had left the Catholic church years ago because of divorce and a fallout with a priest and was now whooping it up in a fundamentalist church with his new wife. He put an arm around me, with the same ginger energy he put to Anthony's ribs. I pulled away, "God Blessed" him, and turned to silently pray for Anthony in the ambulance. After asking God to stay ahead of Anthony in his journey, I beat yellow Reeboks to my van across the street.
I saw Anthony two more times after that. I even talked to his Uncle Ray. They obviously "cared" for each other, but were each other's worst enablers and very "emeshed" as the counselors call it. I knew this because I was told this all, all, all the time with my girl.
I went to the noon AA meeting the day after finding Anthony and asked an older gentleman, about Uncle Ray's age to sponsor Anthony. I brought Anthony my husband's outgrown Cutter and Buck polo shirt in patriotic colors. I knew it wasn't something a 24 year old would wear, but I thought it might give Anthony something to shoot for, when he saw himself in it, all cleaned up and unswollen. I also brought him some cargo shorts and a skateboard T-shirt.
As he was detoxing, Anthony was tweaking pretty badly the first time I saw him. What this looked like was frequent yawning, speedy conversation, restless legs, runny nose, but by the second time, wtih his infected mouth better and his cheekbones not as swollen, he was talking quite clearly and blaming quite a number of people for the way he things had turned out at twenty four. My response was not so gentle and it was as firm as I should have been with my kids, but was too "noodly" to be. My words were all about 12 steps, personal responsiblity, not looking at everyone's else's "bads", but owning your own. I could see Anthony was not impressed and bored beyond yawning.
"I don't know if I will ever see you again Anthony, but I want you to know, I'm glad I met you. I believe this meeting was for a reason. This may not be the bottom you need. It could be, but it may not be. Please don't forget that you were cared for here at this time in your life. May I pray for you?" He agreed quite quickly to prayer.
I bowed my head in the way most are comfortable with, but when I got to the part about "renewing lives" and "redeeming the time", I turned my face turned upward, tears streaming down newly lined cheeks. I pleaded on behalf of Anthony and then went into a jag about God's time with Diana in heaven, and "could You please comfort me with a sign from Diana?" I am sure it was all very weird for the recently sobered Anthony.
Anthony shivered after my prayer, pulled his hospital blankets up to the collar on his red, white and blue polo shirt, blinked at me, yawned and with that...my benediction was done. I touched his arm through the blanket, gave a squeeze and a good "God bless" and I never saw Anthony again.
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