Two-Minute Histories

by Michael Shou-Yung Shum

While we were going out, Allison asked me: "Don't you find it strange that you're still friends with all your exes?"

I told her that it was symptomatic of a larger psychological issue.  My relationships tend to blossom after a break-up, when the pressure is off.

"Obviously," she said, "there's a disconnect between what you crave emotionally and your actual behavior."

The next day, Allison suggested we split up.  We are now quite close friends.  She helped me get my current job, working the graveyard shift at the Johnson County Clean Living Facility.  A couple of years after our break-up, she went through rehab for an alcohol-related driving infraction and was obliged by law to live at the facility for six months. During that time, she established a relationship with the facility's night supervisor, Harold Daffney, and when the previous night staff quit after a particularly tough week, Ally mentioned me as someone who was looking to get into harm reduction and recovery.

I have several unpleasant disciplinary responsibilities at the facility but they are straightforward:  I enforce the nine p.m. curfew; I conduct room searches when suspicion arises; and whenever anyone violates house rules--there is a zero tolerance policy--I supervise the expulsion.  Expulsion is always scheduled in the morning (when subjects are typically most compliant), and is the last responsibility of my shift.  Understandably, many of the patients become resistant when they see the cop car, fearing that they are going back to jail (which they are).  Sometimes I have to coax and cajole them to get in, as if they are apprehensive cats.

On rare occasions, the expulsion turns violent.  That is when Harold Daffney--who'd previously gone through the program himself, for painkillers--springs into action.  He wrestled in high school and is skilled in grappling techniques.  Because the facility is supposed to be a safe space, I allow the cops into the house as a last resort only, but by the time they enter, Harold has usually subdued the individual with as much consideration for their comfort as possible.  I don't know how good of a psychologist he is, but he is very effective at administering these holds.  Once docile, the expulsant is gently led off by the cops.

All the staff members except the facility director share an office on the ground floor of the house, in a room converted from the den.  The second floor of the house is the dormitory--there are enough beds for a dozen residents, two per room--with two common bathrooms.  The ground floor contains the kitchen and the living room.  Off the kitchen is an employee lounge with a couch for napping, an old computer for checking e-mail, and an even older shredding machine, grown dormant from lack of use, hulking in the corner.

During the night, I have the run of the downstairs.  I can boil water on the stove, make tea, sit and contemplate the existence of man. The salary is reasonable, on the low end but commensurate with this freedom.  And I get to work with an ever-changing cast of people and their predilections.  In general, what recovering addicts need to hear most is that their people haven't lost faith in them.  In the absence of friends and family, I try and provide that kind of support.

Harold and I share the last hour of my shift.  He clocks in at five a.m.  Our favorite topic of discussion is who, among the current eight residents, we think is going to make it.  I'm picking Bingham and Vrosky--Harold doesn't disagree--both of them are doing well. But we tend to root for the hopeless, the ones who receive no visitors and no phone calls.  We discuss who we've seen around town, how they looked and whether they appeared clean or not.  I try to focus on the success stories.  That ensures that I like my job more than Harold does.  At six a.m., I clock out, eat breakfast in one of the diners along the High Road, and then go home and go to bed.  By the nine p.m. curfew, I am back in the facility, checking attendance.  At midnight, I hit the switch that kills the lights in the upstairs bedrooms, and it usually takes another half-hour for the house to finally settle.


On Tuesday afternoons, I have lunch with my mother.  She is retired and suffers from shingles, for which she is on a twenty-four hour regimen of neuropathic pain pills.  To see her medicine cabinet now is an obscene revelation for anyone working in the substance recovery field.  But still, she is 63 and has always made reasonable decisions in the past, so I guess to some extent she has earned the benefit of the doubt.  When we meet, she likes to update me on two things. The first is her medical status.

"I have limited motion in my right shoulder," she said today.  "I think it's getting worse."

We were at Common Grounds dissecting our situations over coffee and cucumber sandwiches.  She was telling me her doctor thought she might need another procedure, and also that I am too picky when it comes to relationships.

"I don't think that's it at all," I said doubtfully.

"How is Allison?  Has she finished her Master's?"

"She's still working on it."

"I never liked her, you know.  She was so careless.  Always late for everything!"

She paused to eat a potato chip.

"So, mother, have you had any strange dreams lately?"

"Don't try and change the subject.  But as a matter of fact, three nights ago, I dreamt I was back in high school…"

The second thing my mom likes to talk about is her dreams.  She's been telling me about them since I turned eighteen, over ten years ago.  When I was younger, I was surprised by how often she dreamt about the distant past and people long dead.  Then I began having more of these dreams myself and I understood that their frequency was just a function of age.  We differ in our interpretations, but we both agree that they are the toughest dreams from which to wake up alone.

She took a bite of her sandwich.

"Nick," she said.  "I wonder if you can do me a favor at work."

She looked very serious all of a sudden.

"What do you need?"

"Do you think you could pull someone's file for me?"

"Absolutely not," I said.  "Whose file are you talking about?"

She wrote a name on the back of a business card and pushed it across the table.

"Arturo Chan," I read.  "Never heard of him.  Why do you want to see his file?"

"It's for the rental property.  He's a prospective tenant, and the background check showed that he served part of a suspended sentence at the house in 1995.  I want to rent to him--but I thought you could read it and make sure there aren't any red flags."

"Hmmm," I said.

"I'm sure there's been at least a person or two who's come through that house that you wouldn't want your mother to be landlord of."

"Why don't you just find someone else?"

"Because that would be prejudicial.  Besides, he's the only person who has expressed any serious interest."

"I see."

"And I would've thought you'd want someone like him to get a chance."

Eventually, she piled on enough reasons, and I agreed--grudgingly--to perform the task. I slipped the business card into my pocket and she added that she told Arturo Chan she'd let him know about the apartment by tomorrow.

That night, after the house had been silent for a couple hours, I used the master key to let myself into the facility director's office, closing the door behind me.  The file cabinets were locked but I jimmied them with a coat hanger from the staff closet.  In the file drawer labeled "C-Da", I ran a thumb through the tabs until I came to "Chan, Arturo."  I pulled the thin, black folder and sat in the guest chair at the facility director's desk, intending to make occasional notes on a legal pad while I read it.  Any information I could pass on to mother.

But when I opened the file, the contents were meager: some medical forms, on which Arturo had checked off "No" to everything; results of a psychiatric battery that were well within normative bounds; randomized drug tests, clean. There wasn't anything to indicate that Arturo Chan wasn't perfectly bland, that he wouldn't be the ideal renter. After I finished looking through it, somewhat relieved that I hadn't found anything to disqualify him, I replaced the file in the drawer.  I'd written nothing on the legal pad, but didn't feel quite ready to leave just yet. Just because it was in the same drawer, I decided to pull Harold Daffney's file--I'd always been a little curious--and I read his as well.  Admitted 4/17/97.  Discharged 7/17/97.  This time, there was more juice:  a litany of misdemeanor arrests for narcotics possession dating back to the 1980s.  It gave me a better idea of the harmful space Harold had come from, a place he hinted at only vaguely in our conversations: somewhere quite dark and grim.

But still, a disturbing feeling was rising in me, and it became more acute when I pulled the next file, which was Allison's.  We'd lived together for at least six weeks, and I thought I had a pretty good grasp of her, but I discovered that the person represented in her psychological evaluations was a complete mystery to me.  The language was distant--"The subject perceives the most banal of daily responsibilities as profoundly taxing"--and did not (for me, at least) reflect any of the warmth or liveliness with which I'd always considered her.  At first, I questioned myself.  Was the level at which I normally knew people--even colleagues and exes--the level of a mere stranger?

I couldn't tell.

I couldn't tell if the disconnect was with me or the language.

So I pulled the files of the eight current residents, people I fraternized with every day, like Bingham and Vrosky, and read those.  Again, I had the strong sense that the words on the page were not an accurate representation of the human beings that I knew, that they were more than just the confluence of stated symptoms.  But I needed a larger sample size.  Presently, I started over, at A with Aaronson, and began making my way through the drawers file-by-file, reading the evaluations of all the people with whom I'd come into contact during my tenure in the house.

Somewhere half-way through the first file cabinet, my thinking began to take shape. The failure of clinical language to express the humanity of the individual bothered me, left me feeling unsettled.  I began to remove every page that I felt contained inaccuracies or misrepresentations, stacking them on the desk, to be shredded at the end of my shift.  For the people that I knew well, I removed more of the pages. In their stead, I began to write on the legal pad my own description of the individual to include in the file.  I tried to be as honest as possible and the words came with difficulty, like drops of blood from a pin-prick:

"Jerry Bingham told me he was broke."

"I think he is scared about what will happen after he leaves."

"I saw Hermann Vrosky at Buy-Mart the other day."

"He looked clean and healthy."

"He asked about his brother, and I said that Henry was doing just fine."

When I got back around to Allison's file the second time, every page in her folder ended up in the shredding stack, including several of my own attempts to describe her authentically.  Finally, in frustration, I tore off a blank sheet of paper and drew on it a very simple flower, which, as far as I know, to this day comprises the totality of her confidential file at the Johnson County Clean Living Facility.


It's only a matter of time before the facility director consults one of the files and discovers what's been done, what I've been doing in her office the past several nights. By then, the psychological evaluations that once filled them will be long-destroyed.  When that happens, I will very likely be the next expulsant from the facility.  Harold Daffney himself will escort me out the door. But until then, I'm growing accustomed to spending several hours a night in the quiet house, re-writing the histories in the file cabinet by hand.  I am quite certainly getting better at it, albeit slowly and with great pain.  As regards the shredding machine in the employee lounge, though, I've quickly become an expert.

BIO: Michael Shou-Yung Shum got his MFA from Oregon State University. His work appears or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Weave, and Defunct, among others, and he was a finalist for the 2011 Bellingham Review Annie Dillard Award. He currently resides in Corvallis, Oregon, with a senior cat.