A year inside a pair of small-town boarding houses where a battered band of brothers are the only thing keeping each other alive.
Chester Biswick is a boulder of a man, standing not quite as tall as his nearly six-foot frame allows, his shoulders like the curve of a river stone pressed into the mud. Blue-jean eyes and hands like meat mallets. Decades ago, his hands pilfered plump moonshine-soaked cherries from the pickle jar at the neighbors’ house. Ten-year-old Chester drank because it made him feel tingly, special. Booze joined him in the treehouse, where he slept to escape the shouts between his parents. In another life, Chester’s hands mashed faces. There were the bar brawls. The knife fights. Later those same hands clutched whiskey bottles, shaking so badly it took a pint of the stuff to steady his grip. Drink, vomit, drink again. Sometimes all that would come up was stomach acid. In that life, he watched two marriages collapse. Got two DUIs. For a time, he slept under picnic benches.
“There was nothing there for me anymore. I was basically drinking to kill myself for the longest time, because I just didn’t want to live anymore,” he says.
Chester, who turned fifty this fall, has been clean for over three years. He’s the manager of a recovery home in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Another recovery home is across the street, and like Chester, everyone living in these houses is in active recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
He is talkative after you get to know him, but when I first meet him in February 2014, Chester is shy. He smiles sheepishly when he describes his life in recovery, his mouth an unfolded paperclip that’s fragile along the contours of its former shape. In this life, Chester makes birdhouses and poems and drawings. He cooks cabbage rolls and beef stew for the guys. These guys are family, he says.
He doesn’t like to talk about how much booze he drank or how many pills he swallowed. That just glorifies his past.
“I was the crud on the bottom of your boot, that you wouldn’t even want to wash off. You’d throw the whole boot away,” he says. “And today, I like life.”
From the highway, it looks as if the single-family homes of Canonsburg were spread across its hills like thick, crunchy peanut butter. Home to about 9,000 people, Canonsburg is roughly twenty miles south of Pittsburgh, in countryside rich with arteries of coal and shale gas. It’s a town that lays claim to Bill Schmidt, America’s only javelin bronze medalist since 1972, and Sarris Candies, a phoenix of a factory that survived a 2012 fire that claimed 20,000 pounds of chocolate. Outside the borough building, Perry Como’s milky voice bellows from a statue of his likeness, welcoming visitors to town (at least those who go inside the building and ask to have the singing statue activated).
Blocks away, Pam Jones’s recovery homes are nestled along College Street. It’s a quiet, residential neighborhood bookended by a Dollar General and a cemetery, with a radioactive dump nearby. Her recovery homes are indistinguishable from the other buildings: vinyl siding, two stories, trees in the lawn. They are beloved by some, and a wellspring of concerns for others. Though the voices differ, the concerns are alike in every region of the nation: Living next to addicts will bring crime, make parking scarce and reduce home values. These places are unregulated and unsafe. Recovery homes shouldn’t be in our neighborhoods. Not near our children.
In 2013, roughly 8.2 percent of the U.S. population over age twelve reported substance abuse or dependence. That’s about 21.6 million people. Fatal overdoses now outpace motor vehicle fatalities as the leading cause of injury death among adults age twenty-five to sixty-four. Prescription drug abuse dwarfs previous numbers. Heroin alone grips an average of 40,000 children and adults in Pennsylvania, according to the state attorney general’s office, trailing only California and Illinois. Lawmakers have adopted the word “epidemic” to describe the problem.
Chester fiddles with a padlock on the shed behind one of the recovery homes. The sounds of the highway are faint but constant as the ocean. The winter sky is grey and bright. Near the shed, one of Chester’s birdhouses hangs from a tree. His garden lies dormant under the snow.
Inside, there’s stuff everywhere. A wooden sled he’s going to repaint, a curio to refinish, a drill press, dremels and screwdrivers. Lengths of wood lean against a wall. Jagged teeth of a two-man saw and an old horseshoe hang from the rafters. Everything in here is one of Chester’s projects, and most of this stuff he salvaged from the thrift store or hauled from the trash.
“My grandfather told me, ‘If it’s broken and it’s still broke when you’re done, don’t worry about it. It was broke. If you fix it you accomplish something,’ says Chester. “I was broke. I worked on it. I’m better. And I keep adding to it every day.”
Chester hands me a drawing of a tiny home, dwarfed against an open plain. A curl of smoke rises from its chimney. Three craggy hills are in the distance, the radiating sun nearly as large as the house. His pencil lines are neat, clean, careful.
* * *
Addiction treatment and recovery in America has an ugly past. In the 1800s, addicts could seek treatment at inebriate homes, colonies and asylums. Not everyone went there voluntarily. Some of these places were state-run facilities; others were religious institutions. Patients were treated with aversion therapy, as well as water-cure, electrical and moral therapies. They were blistered and bled, sterilized and lobotomized; fed diets of gold, mercury, salt and watermelon. One dependency was swapped for another — methamphetamine, cocaine and opium. There were home remedies, too. Magazines and catalogs were riddled with advertisements promising instant cures. An unhappy wife could secretly lace her sweetheart’s pork chops with White Star Secret Liquor Cure or The Boston Drug Cure for Drunkenness.
Fortunately, more nuanced approaches began creeping into to treatment practices (though chilling methods such as prefrontal lobotomy persisted until the 1950s). Addicts in the 1940s began learning how to live sober lives on farms and at retreats, which often employed the newly popularized 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous. Living among a community of peers was hailed as an increasingly important factor in recovery. By the 1960s, models of transitional, sober-living housing were blossoming.
Today the National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR), an advocacy organization, says there are thousands of recovery homes across the country. On YouTube you can watch celebrities scream at each other on the 2009 reality television show, “Celebrity Rehab Presents Sober House.” Tanned and earnest, Dr. Drew Pinsky counsels residents like Steven Adler of Guns N’ Roses, comedian Andy Dick and porn star Mary Carey. (Pinsky axed the show’s counterpart, “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” after cast members fatally overdosed.)
To understand recovery homes, know this first: basically anyone who owns a shack with four walls can run a recovery home. Unlike treatment centers such as rehab clinics and halfway houses, recovery homes are unregulated by the federal government. State and local laws vary; fire safety, licensing requirements and zoning codes are inconsistent. They can be called a multitude of names: sober houses, sober-living homes, recovery homes, recovery residences, three-quarter houses. (NARR uses “recovery residence” as a catchall term.) Owners can opt to follow NARR’s standards. Or they can opt not to.
At their core, recovery homes are supposed to offer safe and sober living spaces for recovering addicts. And there are many that do just that. Some are run democratically by the residents. Others have paid medical staff or are owned by nonprofit companies. Like Pam Jones’s houses on College Street, some are owned by recovering addicts.
Across the nation, recovery homes have embroiled surrounding communities with remarkable similarities: Neighbors want these places somewhere else, legislators attempt to tighten the laws, recovery homeowners push back. Grisly media reports detail horrors at these places. There have been stories of unscrupulous landlords charging inflated rent or cashing in on residents who qualify for public housing; investigations revealing unsafe spaces with bed bugs, mice, mold and electrical violations. In the past few years, there have been fatal overdoses at recovery homes in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Wisconsin. A woman was fatally beaten, her body found inside a Boston recovery home where her ex-boyfriend, charged with her murder, was living. Here in Pennsylvania, there have been overdose deaths and other serious safety concerns, including a 2012 fire that left the residents of one recovery house homeless. A bill aimed at regulating homes that receive state funding is currently stalled in the Pennsylvania legislature; a state task force, which convened for the first time in September, is poised to draft safety recommendations and a certification process.
Pressure for increased oversight is mirrored among legislatures nationwide, while legal skirmishes over local ordinances — aimed at limiting things such as the number of residents or homes in a region — chug along. Because recovering addicts are protected under the Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities acts, zoning ordinances are often at odds with federal law. An ongoing battle in Newport Beach, California, has cost the municipality about $3.6 million in lawsuits, according to press accounts. Its 2008 zoning ordinance, which closed more than twenty recovery homes, was ruled discriminatory by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In April of this year, the municipality hired attorney Theodore B. Olson — known for Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling. The municipality will reportedly pay Olson $280,000.
“In general, we want people that are different in a ghetto,” says Leonard A. Jason, the director of DePaul University’s Center for Community Research. If you really want to give addicts a second chance, you have to give them opportunities to live anywhere, Jason says.
Jason, who has contributed to reports for NARR, is among a cadre of researchers studying these places. He began researching recovery homes in Illinois during the early 1990s. His interest pricked when he saw J. Paul Molloy on “60 Minutes” discussing Oxford Houses, a model that Molloy began in the 1970s. (Today there are more than one thousand Oxford Houses in the U.S.; a defining characteristic is that the residents themselves enforce and define the house rules.)
One of Jason’s reports notes, “Among those interviewees who knew of the existence of the self-run recovery home, the values of their houses had actually increased over a mean of three years.” Other studies found landlords reported fewer noise and pet complaints caused by Oxford House tenants than other renters. Neighbors reported gaining friendships and a heightened sense of security after getting to know the recovering addicts. More tenants living together, not fewer, showed prolonged sobriety and lower rates of crime.
These findings suggest there may be similarly positive outcomes at other recovery homes. But words like suggest and may be are important to keep in mind. Oxford Houses may share similarities, but there are many differences when it comes to the thousands of recovery homes operating across country.
“I’ve worked over twenty years and I’ve just scratched the surface of what we need to learn in this area,” says Jason, the tone of his voice even, measured and humble. “I think there is good evidence that many of these houses are good for people, but not all. There’s a lot of variety out there and that’s part of the issue — how do you find one that is good for your needs?”
* * *
On College Street, Pam Jones is the rent collector, rulemaker, mother, sister and confidante. Part ironclad uncontested matriarch, part Wendy Darling, she has hair the color of the crude that once sprang from the Canonsburg soil, and a voice like a coffee grinder. Around here everyone knows her idiosyncrasies well, parroting her phrases, “Hey babe” and “Is that a want or a need?” There have been weddings, baby showers and funerals here. It’s like she gains a foster child every time someone moves in, says a former resident. This community is what keeps her sober, too. Now clean for twenty-five years, it was here on College Street that she quit using drugs and alcohol. If it weren’t for these homes, she would be dead.
“This disease wants to kill us — period,” she says. “And it will and it does.”
In the young guys’ living room, sofas form an altar around the television. Pam pulls deeply on her electronic cigarette, legs dangling over the side of her armchair. It’s a Monday night, a few days after Valentine’s Day. Another weekly house meeting begins.
One by one, Curtis, Brian, Kace, Glenn, A.J. and Derrick tell Pam what’s going on in their lives. (Last names have been omitted for privacy.) Pam asks questions. Did you follow-up on that job application? How’s your baby girl? Did you make that appointment yet? You gotta take care of those wisdom teeth.
During these house meetings, Pam is mining for details. Many of the men transitioned from a rehab facility to a halfway house before coming here. (That’s why recovery homes are sometimes called three-quarter houses, because you’re said to be three-quarters of the way home.) Anyone who contacts Pam can get their name added to the waitlist as long as they’re clean. She interviews everyone and doesn’t advertise or have a website. Residents are often referred by word-of-mouth from local treatment centers. Some have come through the judicial system after undergoing court-ordered drug treatment programs. Occasionally the courts mandate a stay in a recovery home setting, but that doesn’t mean she lets them in. Others are voluntarily in recovery. All are free to live here as long as they want, and free to go whenever they want, though Pam suggests they stay at least six months to a year. A lot of life happens in that time, she likes to say. Relapse isn’t an event, it’s a process. Break-ups, losing jobs, a death in the family. Even the stresses of living a normal life can trigger thoughts about using.
A half-hour in — after the logistics of how much toilet paper Pam needs to buy — it’s time for ‘negotiations.’ A.J. begins, arguing the case that women should be allowed to visit the house. Boyish features match his somewhat cheeky but polite demeanor, often addressing Pam with a “yes ma’am.”
“You know what I want, so why can’t we just work something out?” A.J. says, and the others laugh. “We’re grown men. I’m lonely, who’s all lonely?” A few hands go up. More laughing and jokes.
“These are just lessons for you in rejection, O.K.? The answer is no,” Pam says. “No, we can’t have them hang out. No, we can’t have them spend the night.”
The topic shifts. Now Derrick takes the lead. “What about fish?” he asks.
“We tried the fish thing and they died because everybody fed it and no one cleaned it,” Pam says.
“I’ll be the one to solely take care of the seventeen piranhas,” offers Derrick.
“No, we don’t want seventeen piranhas. What kind of fish?”
Tiny ones like electric carp, he says. There’s a fish tank in the house; it won’t be a mess.
“Alright. Fish,” Pam relents. “Let’s try fish.”
The others smell blood in the water.
“Can my dog come for a weekend?”
“What about, like, a turtle?”
“Nope, no turtles. I said a fish.”
“Well a turtle kind of is a fish.”
“It is not a fish. A turtle is a reptile, it is not a fish.”
“A tarantula is kind of like a fish.”
Most of the guys in this house are in their twenties, a dogpile of jokes, rapping and tattoos. They’re quick to compare their looks and skills and choices of television programs against the older men in the recovery home across the street.
As the meeting dissolves, they migrate to the kitchen where there’s cold pizza and ribs in the slow cooker. Pam returns to her armchair with a helping of meat.
“Pam wouldn’t survive without us,” someone says from the kitchen. She returns the volley. “You can talk about me like I’m not here, I don’t give a fuck.”
A.J., the leader of the weekly plea for allowing women at the house, also returns to the sofa. Now his tone has changed, as he drops his mask. A.J. is from Latrobe, a town about an hour away in Westmoreland County, which tallied more than ninety overdose fatalities in 2013.
“In Downtown Latrobe they opened one [recovery home] and people went to the city council and were like, ‘Look, we don’t want these drug addicts in our neighborhoods.’ They don’t understand,” he says.
This place, he says, has been a godsend.
“I’ve been in active addiction for a long time. I’ve been to treatment numerous times, but I would leave treatment and I just go home back to the same environment, hanging around with the same people. This was a nice getaway, I guess you could say. I’m surrounded by people with sobriety and clean time. I guess I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
A.J. has a little boy who turned three in December. It’s hard not to see him every day, he says. “I figure this will pay off in the long run, getting my life together.”
Pam finishes her last bite of meat, though the night isn’t over yet. There’s still the house meeting across the street. Before leaving, she revisits the debate from earlier in the evening.
“This needs to be your sanctuary without women,” she says. “Like us girls say, the men will kiss your ass and the women will save it. And it’s the other way around for you guys. The guys are gonna save your ass. The women will kiss whatever.”
* * *
Pajama-clad men cycle in and out of the common room, their banter as constant as the television. It’s a typical afternoon at the old guys’ house. (No one is shirtless because Chester warned them to be fully dressed when a reporter is in the house.) Floorboards wheeze as they lumber up and down the stairs; some to do laundry, microwave food, take another cup of coffee. As of February, there are eight men in their thirties, forties and fifties; one is twenty-five. Cans of energy drinks are a choice item, despite the house rules explicitly banning their consumption. (A few years ago, Pam caught residents playing drinking games with the energy drinks, which landed the “friendly beverages,” as the young guys call them, on the banned list. Still, even rule-enforcing Chester drinks them, and Pam acknowledged that the energy drinks aren’t much different than her daily Starbucks.)
“Accountability” is a big word around here, and urine tests are administered at any time. “We don’t call it snitching. It’s for the welfare of everybody in the house,” Chester says.
Making your bed means reclaiming a sliver of your humanity, spirited away by drugs and alcohol. The linoleum on the kitchen floor, though yellowed, shines.
The house rules are detailed in a two-page document, flagged with underlined phrases and exclamation points. The men have to be employed or actively looking for work. They have to pay rent. They have to be involved in a recovery program, like twelve-step meetings. No alcohol-based mouthwash, no vitamins, no medications, no violence, no gambling.
Having rules help addicts become productive members of society, Pam says, because when you’re using you could care less about accountability. “When addicts have no consequences, we’re in trouble.”
Chester has been house manager since January 2012. He and Pam have sources around town who tip them off when guys are on the streets using drugs or alcohol. At home, he watches for the signs of relapse, like a guy on the couch during the times he should be at work. Leaving early, coming home late. Lies and cover-ups and hedging. Getting too close with the guys and becoming their friends can make his role as house manager more difficult, he says.
Because he’s lived here the longest, seniority has earned him the most coveted perk in the house: a private room. But he opts to share the bedroom at the top of the stairs with another guy, trading privacy for strategy.
“I know any time that door opens or closes, no matter how easy or how soft you close it,” Chester says.
Late in the afternoon, the coffee machine is still on. Chester switches it off, irked that he hadn’t spotted it earlier.
Jake comes into the kitchen. He’s been here a few months, his bushy beard earning him the nickname “Duck Dynasty” after the reality television show about a family of religious, bearded, duck-hunting entrepreneurs.
“Do you have quarters? A dollar in quarters?” Jake asks.
“You’re lucky. I just went and got five dollars the other day,” Chester says, scooping a pawful of quarters from his jeans.
“Alright, I’ll hit you back. Thanks buddy.”
“You’re welcome bro.”
The guys never have quarters for laundry, he says. Sometimes it’s the small stuff about running this place that gnaws at him.
When the fan is left on in the basement “man cave” — the only place in the house where the guys can smoke cigarettes — Chester switches it off. He repairs the door handle on the back porch when the guys push it open again and again. He regulates bottles of liquid soap that clutter the shower. Today there are sixteen bottles of body wash in the shower, many with only an inch of soap left. Only eight guys live here. “Put it this way: at least I know they’re clean,” Chester says, chuckling.
There are days when all he wants is quiet, without the bickering over the television remote or laundry. Maybe he’ll find a place of his own soon, he says. “I don’t want to be alone, I just want my own freedom. I guess that’s the only way I can put it. I want my own freedom. And the only person I got to worry about that day is me.”
* * *
Derrick is twenty-two and among one of the newer ones in the pack, having moved into the young guys’ house a few months ago. During a house meeting, he hands his phone to the others to show them his daughter, Ava Marie, posing in a frilly dress at her birthday party. It wasn’t a great day, he says to the group. Some of his family and friends were angry there wasn’t a keg and beers to celebrate Ava’s first birthday.
This is the second time he’s tried to leave behind his life of drugs and alcohol. He started using heroin as a teenager. In another photo, he’s holding newborn Ava. He looks like another man, his arms lean and gaunt, like pipe cleaners cradling a tiny pink bundle. He looks nothing like that today.
He went into treatment for the first time when Ava’s mother was pregnant, he says one afternoon in March. “I was there for twenty-one days. Got out, didn’t go to any meetings, got high that day. I didn’t want to get clean.”
Once he started using again things got worse. His sister kicked him out for having heroin in her house; Ava had already been born by then. Eventually he moved in with his dad.
“He’s an alcoholic. He drinks a half-gallon of whiskey every day, religiously. We just didn’t get along. We fought each other all the time. I got to the point where I’d rather sleep in a tent in the woods than live with my dad. So that’s what I did for about a month,” he says. “I just had a lot of time to think. I realized what I was doing to myself, what I was doing to my family. I decided, that was it. I didn’t have to live that way anymore. Went back to [treatment], July 10, 2013. I’ve been clean since.”
Later that afternoon, I ask Derrick to fact-check my flowchart of the recovery process. Instead of correcting it, he creates his own using the same elements: detox → halfway house → recovery home → home. His flowchart is simple, chilling even, as each step has choices, detailed with forked lines. There’s a box labeled “jail,” a gravestone marked R.I.P, and tiny syringes as options along the flowchart.
Kace, his name inked on his neck — a decorative K flanked by an Ace card — is in his early twenties, and one of the senior members of the house, two years clean. He surveys Derrick’s drawing.
“In every spot, there’s an option of needle,” says Kace as the two laugh. They turn toward me, explaining it’s not really funny, but true.
“There is always that option,” Derrick says.
* * *
“That’s how we keep track of relapses,” Pam says. “Because they usually end up getting arrested. And then they show up in Mugshot Mania.”
Mugshot Mania is available for a buck and a quarter at gas stations and other locations around the region. It’s a full-color publication of the week’s arrests in the region. There’s a stack of them in the living room of the old guys’ house.
“It’s kind of like our Facebook,” says Jake, gregarious as usual, but only half joking.
Many of the guys living in Pam’s recovery homes are seen by outsiders only as addicts and criminals. And there’s some truth to that. Some have felonies or other offenses on their records: burglary, drunk driving, disorderly conduct. They’re the first to call themselves junkies and liars. To pay the rent, some wash dishes or work as laborers on construction sites. A few of the older guys are doing what they went to school for; one repairs heating and cooling units, another sells electronics. Not everyone has a car, and those who do run carpools when they can. Dark humor is infused with hugging. Going through recovery together, many expressed how these are some of the strongest — or even the first — friendships they’ve ever had. And despite their age differences, addiction is now an indelible part of their lives.
“I wouldn’t wish addiction on my worst enemy,” says Holly Martin, a psychologist and the chief operating officer at Greenbriar Treatment Center, which has facilities throughout western Pennsylvania. Martin’s work with addicts spans three decades, and she knows many of these men because they went through Greenbriar. People think the compulsion to use is a moral weakness, says Martin, but quitting is not as simple as deciding to stop using.
“That’s like saying ‘don’t breathe anymore,’” she says.
With a chemical addiction, your brain is sending signals to every cell in your body. You need the drug to survive. The cravings and urges are tangible. Stopping cold turkey from an addiction to alcohol or a prescription medication like Xanax can trigger very real physical responses: shakes, a spike in blood pressure, seizures, death. (Though there are arguments that the disease concept is a myth, the government-run National Institute on Drug Abuse classifies addiction as a brain disease.)
Living among others who know what they’ve been through is vital, she says. “Having that support network will be the difference between sobriety and relapse. Period.”
* * *
Spring arrives and Pennsylvania thaws.
“I even have a sunburn,” Chester says, chuckling.
There have been so many projects to do. Refinishing a table and chairs, cleaning gutters. He built a new workbench for the shed. His garden is ready for another season of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, zucchinis and sweet potatoes.
No one has relapsed but a few guys are moving out, Chester says. It will be chaos for a while as new residents move in, but things will settle. As for finding a place of his own, he’s still undecided.
Months earlier, I asked Chester if he monitors his own signs of relapse.
“I can’t afford to let myself slip. Because I know what I used to be. And I don’t want to be that,” Chester says, speaking slowly, earnestly.
“Some days this is what keeps me grounded: this place, being around people just like me. People that have struggles day in day out on a daily basis. But also having people that care about you — being who you are, knowing who you are — and not thinking they’re better than you.”
* * *
It’s a few days after Thanksgiving and Butch is mixing batter for brownies. Nothing fancy, they’re made from a box, but he takes great care pouring the syrupy goo into the pan. Baking is something he likes to do whenever he has a day off, he says.
“Stop back,” he says, sliding the tray into the oven. “You can have one.”
It’s been nearly a year since I first visited College Street. Butch is one of many new faces around here. The houses are no longer as evenly split between old and young guys. Some have moved on, finding their own apartments, while others have been kicked out for using.
Derrick will have been living here for one year come Christmas. His daughter Ava just got her ears pierced with tiny pearl earrings; he saw her over the Thanksgiving holiday. The food was alright (though he was worried about the undercooked turkey), but there was too much fighting between his siblings, he says. Derrick now has a teal early nineties Honda, and he and Randy, another guy in his twenties, share the role of house manager.
Chester is still managing the house across the street. March of 2015 will mark four years clean.
There have been ups and downs — the cops came over the summer because Randy was riding his dirt bike down College Street; Kace is still sober, rapping and said to be engaged; A.J. relapsed, but is back in recovery. But everything is overshadowed by what happened on Labor Day weekend.
* * *
Chester takes me back to that Saturday morning when, he says, something didn’t seem right from the start.
When Chester wakes up on that Saturday, the bathroom door is closed. The shower isn’t running. Maybe someone is using the toilet. Downstairs it’s quiet but still early, around quarter to seven. One of the early risers is drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette.
He goes back to his bedroom to get ready for the day, reaching for his shoes. There’s that feeling again. Something is off. From his window Chester sees a vehicle pull in front of the house. On weekends it’s typical for some of the guys to go to a restaurant with family members. Today he sees a woman get out of the car, which is unusual. Now the woman is at the door asking about her son because she’s been calling and he’s not answering his phone. Right at that moment his stomach flips. Something ain’t right. The mother follows him inside, up the stairs. Chester knocks on her son’s bedroom door, opens it, but he’s not inside. Turns to the bathroom door. Still closed. Knocks. Silence. Now the mother is yelling her son’s name and Chester grabs a metal hanger and unhooks the latch, and she sees what he sees and screams, calling her son’s name while Chester is trying to help her from seeing what she has already seen.
There’s nothing the paramedics will be able to do for the body slumped against the wall.
An empty syringe lies on the floor.
“It was brutal,” Pam says. Always the straight talker, she doesn’t mince words. There had been overdoses before but never a death, she says.
“It is the reality of recovery, addiction and recovery houses. Sad but true. And we hope it never happens, but it does,” she says. “I’ve been to a lot of funerals. I’ve lost a lot of people I love.”
Later that day, near dusk, the scarlet stripe on Chester’s NASCAR jacket almost glows in receding light. The embers of his cigarette flare. Smoking is unusual for him.
It hit him hard, Pam says.
* * *
On a late November afternoon Chester is raking long, spindly needles from under the pines. It’s an unusually warm day, and the soil is spongy as we walk to the shed to see his latest projects. Inside, we hear a fluttering sound, like a moth trapped in paper bag. Chester moves toward a window that is partially obscured with debris. He peers behind the debris, reaching with gloved hands and speaking in a hushed voice, “Come on, come on.” Seconds later a flash of brown, no bigger than a salt shaker, disappears into the winter sky.
Back in the house it’s quiet at the kitchen table because many of the guys are at work. A yellow cake cools on the stovetop. I ask Chester what he was thinking when he realized a bird was trapped in the shed.
“Death, lately, has been a big thing on my mind,” he says. “And I hate to see anything happen to anybody or anything.”
“I’m running all the scenarios through my head. What I should’ve done, what I could’ve done. And the bottom line comes out to, there’s nothing more I could’ve done. He made his choice. He chose to do what he did. No matter if he was living here or living somewhere else, he made the choice,” Chester says.
“And the look on that poor lady’s face, I mean, every time I think about it, that’s the first thing I see. It’s just hard to explain. And that scream. It was just, it’s something that’s going to bug me for a while. And for a week after that, I couldn’t sleep worth crap because it stirred up memories from my past and the shit I used to do.”
Abruptly Chester begins listing home repair projects: laying new linoleum, replacing the toilet and painting the walls. The tone of his voice shifts, becoming slightly more mechanical. This is Chester’s coping mechanism at work.
“He just turned, like three days before, twenty-four years old. His therapist was like, ‘He was never late, always on time, never missed a session, talking about going back to school.’ Even his [parole officer] the day before piss-tested him. The day before that, I piss-tested him. He was clean,” he says.
“It caught everybody off guard. I mean, me and him talked the most because of his schedule. Most of the guys very seldomly seen him. I hung around with him and talked with him more, because I seen him more. I kind of had a little bit of an attachment to him, and knowing him, because we talked a lot.”
I ask Chester how he thinks people will react when they hear about the death.
“Personally I think the public’s going to judge it the way they normally always do, and think that it’s nothing but a bunch of addicts and alcoholics,” he says. “I see the attitudes from these people and how they look upon us. No matter what they hear and what you say to them, they’re going to form their own opinion. You know it’s gonna be, ‘Well, what do you expect? That goes on all the time. That’s how they are. That’s who they are.’ Not knowing that this is the first time this has happened since this place has been running.”
“It’s not like it’s something that goes on every day. And to try to convince people of that? I got a better chance of hitting the lottery and winning a million dollars.”
“When it comes to certain things, people have already formed their opinions of how we are and who we are,” he says. “It sounds selfish in a way, but I just can’t grasp some people’s opinion of us. To me, I think they’re no good. Because you’re judging me. You’re no better than me. What’s hidden in your closet? What goes on at your house? What do you do behind your closed doors?”
Outside, the weather is shifting. The wind is blowing harder.
“When I seen that bird, I knew it needed help,” says Chester. “And I had to help it. I didn’t want to see nothing bad happen to it…I knew there was an opportunity to save it, and to help it.”
He reflects again on the young man who died in the bathroom, just above where we sit.
“It’s something I wished that I’d never, ever have to see again. But it’s something I’ll never forget. It’s hard to explain, I mean, the pain in that lady’s face. I see it every day.”
* * *
Em DeMarco is a journalist based in Pittsburgh. Currently she is working on merging nonfiction storytelling with comics and illustration. Twitter @eademarco.
Part of this story was reported while Em DeMarco was an investigative reporting fellow with PublicSource, an in-depth news outlet that covers issues across Pennsylvania.