Fiction 500 | Short Stories

Keep Coming Back

They milled around the old church hall sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups. Fluorescent light filled the room, the floorboards creaked as more people arrived unwrapping scarves, tucking hats and gloves into coat sleeves, draping the coats over metal folding chairs. They were young and old, women and men, every race, every social class.

Some chatted with their fellow long-timers, some stared at the floor or dozed in their seats. Most of the men drank coffee, gnawing at the candy-striped plastic stirrers like blades of straw. Many of the women knitted.

Greg called the meeting to order and introduced himself. He recited The Preamble, led the Serenity Prayer, listed the Twelve Steps. He declared himself an alcoholic and said he was 26 and been sober for three years. He started drinking when he was 18 and went straight to the bottom--expelled from two colleges, fired from half a dozen jobs, thrown out of his parents home to crash on a friend's couch and eventually on the street. He said he attends two meetings a day now and with God's help will take sobriety one day at a time.

Dozens of voices responded, in a chorus, Keep coming back, Greg. Greg asked a man named Stu to hand out colored chips, the emblems of progress.

"Who's got one day?" Stu almost shouted. "If you’re 24 hours sober, c'mon up."

A young woman raised her hand and came forward to accept the chip. Stu shook her hand and when she began to cry drew her in for a hug; she nearly disappeared under his beefy arms.

Keep coming back, everyone in the room said.

Stu continued with the chips. Who had 48 hours? One month? Six months, one year, ten years?

Stu returned to his seat. Greg asked if there were any first-timers in the room. A few people raised their hands. Greg welcomed everyone and announced that the floor was open.

A woman who called herself Sister stood to speak. She said she was an alcoholic and a mother, sober nearly three years. She recounted having drunk half a gallon of mouthwash with a bottle of aspirin before calling 911. "I needed to get help," she said, "but I didn’t know where or how or who to ask. I figured the emergency room, maybe they'll know what to do with me. Goddamn, I was out of my mind, but it worked. They dried me out and sent my sorry ass straight here."

Keep coming back, Sister.

One after another they stood to admit their alcoholism and tell their stories. They’d wrecked cars, marriages, families, careers. Fred was in town on business and so happy he found an open meeting on short notice. Keep coming back, Fred. Jim, now sober over twenty years, still marveled at how short his path had been from harmless partying to rock bottom. "I was living in my car, then even that ran out of gas," he quipped. Keep coming back, Jim. Justin made a confession. He relapsed a month ago and has been lying to the group. He fell to his knees and began to weep, muttering, "I’m sorry, you guys, I’m a piece of shit, I'm so sorry." Keep coming back, Justin.

When there were no more testimonials Greg called for a moment of silent reflection, then asked everyone to rise and join hands in a circle for the closing prayer. When they finished, he reminded them one last time to keep coming back.