Charge it to the Game by Karen Collazo

I checked into Miami-Dade County’s New Direction rehab facility after self-identifying as a drug addict.  I signed up for the Specialized Transitional Opportunity Program (STOP), a six-month inpatient program that provided affordable housing to patients who worked offsite. The rent was only $2 a day.

Pam was the only client with a job in the STOP program. She was a loud and bossy black woman whose everyday look included dramatic eye makeup, but no lipstick—sharp, menacing eyebrows drawn in with a black pencil and highlighted with a second, equally intimidating white line directly underneath. She liked to wear a light pink sleeveless house dress that reached the floor and had a 5-inch rip in one of the armholes. She completed this outfit with black Crocs. On the outs, she had hustled by tricking—to score crack, money and men. She had learned early on that using people to get what she needed was the only way to survive.

She was the loudest patient in the room. Whether she was reading out loud to herself, clearing out her throat through the stoma in her trachea, or sucking her teeth clean of Flamin’ Hot Fries residue, her presence had a way of invading space. She was a mean girl, a bully who cracked jokes at everyone else’s expense. She pretended to do favors for the women, but always cheated them out of something. Like the time she purchased hair extensions for Kirsten. She charged her a finder’s fee and then charged her extra to put them on. Pam was my bunkmate and she was Queen Bee.

Pam’s job was a part-time minimum wage position with the county. Every day, she left the drug treatment facility at 6:30 a.m. to take the Metrorail downtown to Camillus House. She dutifully clocked in at 7 a.m., Monday through Friday, and clocked out at 2 p.m. on the dot. Her job entailed gardening and trash clean-up along Biscayne Boulevard, but she didn’t do much of either; rather she pushed a large plastic trash bin down the sidewalk while window-shopping. She returned from work every day to tell the group stories about her day in downtown Miami, her lunch at House of Wings, and the drama with her boss who was hitting on her. It was her first attempt at making an honest living.

When Pam cashed her first hard-earned check, she didn’t have a bank account to deposit the funds. Instead, she brought home her meager wage, organized into three piles: spending money for the week, rent for her Boopie (her man), and money for her sons. Each stack was placed in a separate hiding place. When she came home on payday, she had five crisp twenty-dollar bills tucked into her bra—one of three hiding places.

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” she screamed one morning, as she turned her side of the cottage upside-down.

“What?” I asked, as I sat up in bed. “What’s going on?”

It was 5 a.m. and still dark out.

“Fuck me! I lost $100! Lord Jesus! It must’ve fallen out last night…”

“Okay, calm down. Let’s retrace your steps.”

“I tucked it in my bra right before bed. Then I went to the laundry to get a mop. But dassit. I went straight to bed after that. Lord, help me. It’s not outside and it’s not in the room.” She continued to scream, pulling drawers open, pushing items around, and slamming them shut. “One a’ these bitches done prolly found my shit and ain’t gonna say nothin. These junkie bitches would do me like that. You know why? Cuz that’s what junkies do. And the bitch who stole it would be the first hoe up in here tryina’ pretend like she finna help me find it!”

Later that day, with Pam away at work, speculation ran rampant among the women at New Direction. Everyone was talking about Pam’s missing money and rumors started to fly around that I was the culprit. Earlier that week, Pam had mentioned to one of the other rehab patients that she had seen me walking past her closet as she entered the cottage we shared. The quick turn I had made into the bathroom, as she opened the front door, just didn’t sit right with her and, upon further inspection, things seemed to have moved around in her purse. Pam had confided in one of the other girls, telling them she no longer trusted me.

Over the span of one afternoon, I went from “walking past Pam’s closet” that one time, to “being caught going into her purse.”

Until that moment, I had done my best to get along with Pam. I followed all her cottage rules by never touching any of her things and not once complained when I noticed my shampoo was mysteriously running low. Although she was obnoxious and crass, I was forgiving and faithful. I defended her character before the other women, whenever there was a confrontation, and there were many. I followed her around like an duckling. In return, she let me bum cigarettes and brought me snacks from the outside. I thought we were cool, but I guessed wrong. Pam had suspicions that I was up to no good. This didn’t sit well with me.

If I didn’t nip it in the bud, I could lose my social standing as a respected member of the tribe. I had to be strategic about my next move. I was innocent of the crime and not about to be labeled a thief because of Pam’s carelessness. This wasn’t prison, but many of the women had a prison mentality. The way we handled confrontations said a lot about our character and demanded an unspoken level of respect within the community. I needed this approval to survive within those walls. While sitting dejectedly off to the side, during recess, I decided against walking off the property like so many women did when issues remained unresolved. Instead, I requested a cottage change.

With a handful of women eavesdropping at a nearby picnic table, I confronted Mr. Roundtree, one of the male counselors.

“Mr. Roundtree,” I said, “you know there’s no way that I would steal from Pam, but I know that she won’t believe me and I’m not going to be made uncomfortable in my own cottage because she has trust issues.”

“You have a point, Ms. Karen, but let’s first talk to Ms. Pam and see if we can work things out. If the conversation doesn’t go anywhere, we’ll reassign you.”

Upon Pam’s return that afternoon, however, there wasn’t much mediating to be done.

All the women sat on metal chairs along the long wooden table in the Good Room, attending a group meeting called Seeking Safety. The Good Room was the hub of all activity on the premises. It’s where “group” was held, where lunch trays were divvied up and AA/NA meetings were conducted in the evenings. The dirty walls were covered with plaster bagworm cocoons, handwritten inspirational quotes, and community rules written on notebook paper and taped up.

Pam walked in and interrupted the session by announcing that she had ruminated on the incident all day and that God had spoken to her. God had told her that it wasn’t me who had stolen her money. She cleared my name before the counsel and then passed around a blank sheet of notebook paper. She instructed the entire group to write their individual names down. The women exchanged confused glances, but remained silent. Pam explained that she was going to give the signed sheet of paper to her sister who would pray to God that the thief be revealed in due time.

“This one, I’m charging to the game, but da Lord is gonna show me who’s lyin’ and dat person betta read my resume, cuz I don’t fuck around when it comes to my money!”

#

A week later, on laundry day, I picked up two scoops of industrial-grade detergent from the main office and made my way to the machines adjacent to the cottage I still shared with Pam. The washing machine and dryer were fairly new, but tucked under a rotting gazebo. Eight women had access to that one machine, so chances were high that it was in use. Already annoyed, I lifted the lid to the washer, half-expecting to find Pam’s wet Miami-Dade County uniform. She often left it overnight for someone else to have to dry and fold.

There it was: the bright yellow shirt and dark blue slacks.

And five crumpled-up soaking wet twenty-dollar bills.

Aha! Here was my chance to finally de-throne the tyrannical head of our community. I marched back into the Good Room, where the women were swapping yogurts for cigarettes, while Crime Watch played on the old boxy TV set in the corner.

“Pam,” I said to the room, “you don’t have to charge it to the game. I found your money.” I placed the wet dollars on the dining table.

Her jaw dropped, the room burst into laughter and, just like that, a new Queen Bee rose.

#

As the Queen Bee, I was doted on hand-and-foot. My meals and snacks were set aside and labeled in my absence, which was critical since most of the food went missing. The meals at the rehab were provided by the local prison and tasted like the cardboard that held them. Dinner consisted of a barely identifiable vegetable, a mushy mound of starch, and a slab of mystery meat. As Queen Bee, however, I was assured the most recognizable of the brown lumps and extra cookies or fruit.

In my new role, I could also arrive late and leave early from peer-led group meetings, which was against the rules, but everyone turned a blind eye. When I spoke, others listened. And everyone laughed at my jokes. Most importantly, the whole group had my back: If anyone noticed I was on a counselor’s radar for misbehaving or breaking a rule, the women went to bat for me.

Along with perks, however, there was also great responsibility, which eventually proved too much for me to manage.

One of my duties was orchestrating the Saturday store run. Once a week, along with another patient, I was tasked to walk across the street to the Walmart Supercenter to purchase lunch for the women—our reprieve from the anonymous meatloaf. Each patient was allowed only three items. Making a counselor-approved list of three items per woman, for fifteen women, keeping tabs of everyone’s money and passing through security, was made more difficult by the “other list.”

The “other list” included the candy, coffee and corn starch that assuaged our cravings while in rehab—contraband items, which we all carefully hid in our cottages. These smuggled goods were tossed over a seven-foot fence that ran the length of the property, in a blind spot the surveillance cameras didn’t reach.

No matter how many organizational tactics I employed, I managed to fuck up every store run. If I wasn’t forgetting the exact type of chocolate Brenda had requested, I was buying the wrong kind of sweetener for Sarah. Once, I even forgot to toss the extra cigarettes over the fence and they were confiscated during inspection. For a whole week, the women couldn’t get through one conversation without bringing up the damn cigarettes.

My biggest failure, though, was losing three of our girls.

The pettiest dispute could trigger a woman to leave the program altogether. Because the rehabilitation center was under-staffed, the employees depended on active participation from the community to ensure we were all sticking to the program. We were supposed to be a family in this sense—looking out for each other because it was the right thing to do.

Mary, a needy fifty-year old with a coke problem, walked off after I failed to convince her that everyone hating her wasn’t reason enough to throw away sobriety; she headed home for Key West one Saturday afternoon. Dawn, a heroin-addicted drifter, went MIA in the middle of the night; it wasn’t until four hours later, when she didn’t show up to group, that any of us even realized she was gone.

And then there was Little Lisa.

Little Lisa suffered from anxiety and spent a lot of time by herself, smoking Marlboro Lights by the weight machines near the tool shed. She paced around the courtyard, while she listened to Dirty South hip-hop on her iPod. She was twenty-one years old and only two weeks into the program. One afternoon, a confrontation erupted between her bunkmates and it was all Little Lisa needed to call it quits. When Little Lisa walked off the property, after I was unable to convince her otherwise, we all knew she was going to use. It was all she talked about. Little Lisa was addicted to a strong cocktail of heroin and fentanyl, a popular combination that caused an unprecedented number of deaths in Overtown.

I no longer wanted to be Queen Bee.

Two days later, Mrs. Lily, one of the female counselors, broke the bad news in the Good Room: Little Lisa had died of an overdose. The group broke out in a collective wail and we hugged each other tightly. It seemed like the room itself started to weep, and many of the women repeated that old trope: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

All I could think was that some things you just couldn’t simply charge to the game

KAREN COLLAZO is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida. She writes  personal essays about life in the margins. Her nonfiction work depicts what it’s like to be a Hispanic working-class immigrant in America, a person living with mental illness and a woman who once struggled with drug addiction. Her work has been featured in the Writing Class Radio podcast and blog. She was recently accepted into the Creative Writing program at Chatham University, in Pittsburgh, and will begin pursuing her MFA this fall. 

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