Colleen O’Brien


At the Monday meeting Suzy’s topic is negativity. Unless anyone has another topic they need to talk about instead. No, yes, everyone around the long conference table says. That’s good.

Suzy’s sixty-five, has short, neat, iron gray hair and a round flat face with small blue eyes. She looks like she probably looked in high school, like a high school Suzy dressed up to play an older woman. Her mouth is impatient, as if she’s always holding back, just barely, from saying something she’ll regret. Somehow this also makes her look afraid.

“Apparently I’ve been so negative lately,” Suzy says, “that my mentally ill sister thinks I need a psychiatric evaluation.” Around the table, people laugh. I laugh too, but Suzy’s too unpleasant for me to really think she’s funny. She’s been around a lot longer than I have, though. So have most of these people. A couple of the men have known Suzy since rehab twenty years ago.

“I have a severe case of the Poor-Suzys,” she says. “Everyone’s against me. My neighbor’s dog shitting in my yard is against me. My neighbor, even though he cleans up after the dog, is out there letting it shit to spite me. The lady at the D & W deli is against me—they’re out of low sodium ham. They’ve only got honey baked.”

More laughs. I laugh.

I knew girls in high school who looked like Suzy. Plain, but with that bitchy expression some guys seemed to like. Popular girls who drank hard enough they sometimes puked or peed their pants but never cried.

“So I just wondered if anyone has thoughts on that. I don’t care if it’s crosstalk, I’ll take advice. That’s all I have.”

“Thanks, Suzy,” we say.

There’s that effect, like in church, of many voices saying the same words at once. Before it fades, someone’s already saying, “I’m Meghan and I’m an alcoholic-addict.”

“Hi, Meghan,” we say.

“And Suze,” she says, “I am so grateful for what you said.”

Meghan is a crier. She’s probably forty, maybe older, should be pretty, always looks exhausted. Her hair is dyed a shade too dark.

Meghan says she’s exactly the same, except her negativity is all directed at herself. The voices in her head are like—did anyone ever see that movie Mommie Dearest? People laugh. I laugh. I’ve never seen the movie, but my mother used to talk about it, used to compare my grandmother to Joan Crawford. Cutting off her daughter’s hair and forcing her to eat raw meat. Most of the time, I’m the youngest person at this meeting.

Suzy is staring at Meghan. When she laughs, it’s loud and a little late.

I don’t blame her. We don’t have conversations. People say, “I know exactly what you mean,” and then talk about something different.

Meghan once told us how she relapsed because someone threw a drink in her face. She got vodka in her mouth and figured—.

It kills me that you can’t ask questions.

There’s a pause, a creaking of chairs, after “Thanks, Meghan.” The clock doesn’t make noise, but I feel like I can hear it.

“Well, I’m Roy and I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic.”

“Hi, Roy.”

Roy’s a small, squareheaded zealot who carries the Big Book and has half the pages flagged. He has seven years, less than a lot of these people. Roy got arrested for stopping his car and falling asleep in the middle of an on-ramp to 94 West. His favorite part of the story is that he has no idea where he’d planned to go.

If we don’t mind, Roy would like to read us a few paragraphs.

Suzy gets up to go to the bathroom. The pink satin lining of her coat is turned out over the back of her chair.

Roy’s been taking a sponsee through the fourth step. He never ceases to be amazed at the power of these words, how they came for him at just the right time, and how he knows that was God’s work.

“‘Resentment is the number one offender,’” he reads. “‘It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stems all forms of spiritual disease . . .’”

There is a horizontal crease in the lining of Suzy’s coat, like a mouth closed over glorious sarcasm.

“Thanks, Roy,” we say when he’s done.

“Thanks, Roy,” Suzy says, half a beat off, returning to her chair.

Suzy got sober because that floaty feeling she used to get went away, and she couldn’t drink enough to bring it back. She was having an affair with a married man. Her adult kids didn’t talk to her.

Big Ed talks next. People call him that because he likes being a character and people like having a character around. It makes us feel like we’re on TV. Big Ed is also obese.

I remember that floaty feeling. That forward momentum, that sense of each moment opening fluidly into the next, like notes in a song.

Suzy quits staring at Roy and shifts her eyes to me for a second. She’s jealous that I’m young. And I’m not really that young. I give her a small, tired smile, as if I understand something about her. She looks away immediately.

“Also, I forgot one announcement,” Big Ed says. “Friday the eleventh I’ll be speaking down at Alano. Should be a lot of fun.”

“Thanks, Ed.”

“Ed,” Suzy says, with the rest of us.

Colleen O’Brien is a PhD student in fiction writing at Western Michigan University. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Antioch Review, North American Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Sou’wester, Fugue, and other journals. She has also published poems in West Branch, Poetry Northwest, The Journal, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Western and at the University of Chicago’s school of continuing education.