Content Warning: Addiction 



“The first step,” Randy smiles at each dark-eyed member of the semi-circle. “Is admitting that you have a problem.”

The group squeaks in their chairs under the stuttering florescent lights of the church’s basement. Gritzman stares down at his black combat boots. His arms are painted with sketchy, monochromatic tattoos decided upon while he was in a delirious stupor. He’d been clean now for two weeks. The longest he’d went without a fix since childhood. His ears are pierced; and in them are rusted nails picked from the side of the highway, the pointy ends facing out. His hair is long and tousled just so, partially hidden under a dark cotton engineer’s cap. He is thin and objectively handsome with clear, perfect skin despite smoking a pack a day.

“Gritzman, would you like to talk about your week? Is your sponsor here with us today?”

Gritzman pulls himself off the brown metal chair and stands up. “My sponsor is in Oklahoma. He’s a door-to-door salesman. Selling bulk licorice. It’s not an easy trade in 2021 so the days are long, but someone’s got to do it. Sometimes he can go weeks without a sale. And then… Bam!” The rest of the group pulls back. “Then he’ll get three, maybe four sales. Licorice is a very divisive candy. It really is a very complex flavor and not everyone can appreciate its subtlety.”

Randy cleared his throat. “Okay, well—”

“We’ve been keeping in touch over the phone.” Gritzman rolls his eyes and sits down. Asking him how he’s doing, but they never really listen. It’s a shame.

Randy puts his hands on his bulging stomach in thought, or maybe out of boredom. Randy’s hosted meetings every week for over 15 years. Same time, same spot. Never rescheduled. Not for Christmas, New Year’s, or President’s Day. “Very good.”

“Right. So, I haven’t used at all this week.” The group gave a brief golf clap and murmured some quiet congratulations. “It was tough. When your DOC is available everywhere, it’s hard not to drink. I almost gave in once or twice, but I kept thinking about all the hurt it’s caused me over the years…”

Randy pipes up. “And you have a medical condition as well, don’t you?”

“I do. So it’s especially important that I stay clean.”

“Very good. We are all very proud of you, Gritzman.”

There is more Gritzman wants to say. Things he wants to talk about with the group, but he is the quiet, brooding type and he never gives away his deep desperation and insecurities. He must appear confident in his aloneness.

After the meeting, the lamplit streets are deserted. He thinks about calling his sponsor, the Licorice Man. But instead, he dips beneath the overpass, his old hangout, and keeps walking until he reaches the convenience store.

It has been two weeks since he’s been here. Every day he passes this same location and thinks about when he used to come in to get a drink. No. Not tonight. Not now. Right after the meeting. Finally, he is getting his life together. Holding down a steady job.

Despite these thoughts, Gritzman opens the door. A little overhead bell dings to signal his arrival.

“Gritzman,” says the store clerk. “It’s been a minute, my man. How’s about something to drink?”

A long pause. Gritzman sighs. He stares at himself in the overhead mirror used to spot shoplifters and is surprised at his gaunt appearance. Maybe just a taste. “Okay.”

The clerk walks to the fridge beside the counter and pulls out the creamy, white liquid. “Was thinking you were done with this stuff.”

“I was.”

Gritzman places a $20 bill on the counter. “Ten gallons.”

“Are you sure, bro? That’s a lot of fucking milk.” In his eyes, the clerk can see shiny hunger. A bull ready to strike. He quiets down. “If that’s really what you want.”

Gritzman leaves the shop with two stacked shipping boxes of milk. He is nearly shaking with the anticipation, but he tells himself that he must at least make it back to his smelly, lonely apartment before indulging. The rain begins to come down on the deserted streets and for that he is thankful. No one to see the horrible mistake he is making.

Inside, he sets each gallon of milk carefully on the coffee table, changes into his comfy pants and turns on the TV.

“Fuck,” he smiles. “I’ve missed this.” Gritzman opens the lid to the first jug and takes a long swig. As the night passes, he drinks gallon after gallon of the delicious dairy. After the first three gallons, things became more difficult. Since age nine, he suffered from lactose intolerance. And he felt it now.

But he pushes on. Four gallons. Five gallons. His head spins deliriously and he nearly doesn’t pick up the phone when it rings.

“Gritz,” says the chalk-coated voice on the other end. The Licorice Man.

“Yeah?” Gritzman burps and giggles.

“Are you drinking?”

“No.” A smile crosses his face.

The Licorice Man’s tone is dark and angry. “How much? How many gallons?”

“Five. So far…”

“That’s too much, Gritz.”

Tears run down Gritzman’s face. His breath stinks. His stomach is distended like a bowling ball, and he isn’t sure he can move. “No. It’s not enough!” He hangs up the phone and takes a long swig on the sixth gallon.

The phone rings on and on for the next ten minutes before his sponsor finally gives up. By midnight, Gritzman finishes all ten gallons of milk. His eyelids are heavy, and he fears he might pass out. Just before he closes his eyes, he whispers to himself in his empty apartment. “It was worth it.”

The Licorice Man stays out, but a neighbor reports a foul stench coming from unit 206, Gritzman’s unit, and the police are called to investigate. When they find him, he is bloated and surrounded by rotting milk. His bowels emptied themselves. His tongue lolls out of his mouth, black and heavy.

“Another overdose,” the policeman shook his head.

“A travesty. This is worse than opioids, worse than the crack epidemic.”

“Third one this week and it’s only Tuesday.”

“Horrible,” the officer bagged the body. “But I guess that’s just the whey it is.”

About the Author

Mel Sanders lives in Waddy, Kentucky with her partner, cat (Childers), and tortoise (Boris). After graduating from the University of Louisville in 2018 with a BA in English, she went on to have a semi-related professional career as a social media coordinator for the library a.k.a. the socialist agenda. She has been published previously in “The White Squirrel,” “Plainsongs,” “Is This Up,” and “Vermilion.”