Literary Arts | READ LOCAL First

2020 Utah Original Writing Competition Winner: Travis Petersen

READ LOCAL First represents Utah’s most comprehensive collection of poets and authors. This month we bring you Travis Petersen, winner this year of the Utah Division of Arts and Museum’s Original Writing Competition in the category of Novel, judged by Roy Scranton.

Petersen was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in St. Louis, MO. He currently lives in Salt Lake City, UT, with his wife Kim and their dog, Dotty. The Prayer of St. Francis is his first full-length work of fiction.

The Prayer of St. Francis portrays ex-convict, Frankie Schumacher. Schumacher has turned his life around. Nowadays, he’s a social worker who helps other ex-cons stay clean and adjust to life. While investigating the disappearance of a former client, Schumacher becomes involved in a mystery that puts his sanity, sobriety, and life on the line.

Here follows Chapter 1. Petersen’s dialogue is fast, his descriptions are succinct, and this excerpt of The Prayer of St. Francis adds another worthy addition to the library of READ LOCAL First.   

The Prayer of St. Francis

Chapter 1

I had just gotten out of a client meeting at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre when I got the call that Rusty had relapsed. Dave, Rusty’s AA sponsor, told me he hadn’t seen Rusty at his home group, and that last anyone had heard from him, he was on the edge of a drink. So Dave had driven out to Rusty’s old haunt, the VFW Hall in Arnold, and saw Rusty’s purple Plymouth Duster parked outside. “I gotta go unlock the church for the Des Peres meeting,” Dave said, “but I put in a call to the Harbor House, and they’ve got a bed open if we can get him in today. Can you go get him?”

I was about an hour away by car, and my mind was on the client I’d just met with, a guy named Paul Pruitt who was on an eight-year bid for assault. He had a parole hearing about a month out, and I was his assigned counselor for MARS, the Missouri Alliance for Reentry Services. If and when he got out, I’d work with him to reintegrate into society outside the walls. Like I had with Rusty, a little more than two years before. “Dave, can I call you back?”

“No problem,” Dave said.

I called the boss’s desk line back at the MARS office. Karen, who was working with us while she got her master of social work, answered instead. “Is the man in?” I asked.

“He’s out in the field.”

“I’ll try his cell.” I hung up, found the boss’s cell in my contacts, and hit the call button. He picked up after three rings.

“What’s up?”

“I got a call from Dave, Rusty’s sponsor. Rusty’s back out. He’s at the VFW Hall in Arnold.”

“Again?”

“Again,” I said.

The boss sighed. “Okay, where you at?”

“About ready to leave Bonne Terre. Is it alright with you if I don’t head right back to the office?”

“Fine, but that Pruitt paperwork is still due tomorrow morning.”

“Got it.” I called Dave back. He answered on the second ring.

“Yeah.”

“Okay, I’ll head to get Rusty.”

“Cool. Thanks, man, you’re a lifesaver.”

“Ain’t nobody saved yet.” I put my phone in my pocket, got into the maroon Nissan Sentra that had seen about as many scrapes as I had, tossed my bag full of paperwork on the passenger seat, and headed north.

I tried Rusty’s cell twice on the way—both times it went straight to voicemail. I didn’t bother leaving a message. When I got to the VFW Hall in Arnold, I parked at the far end of the lot, getting out of my car and lighting a cigarette. I stared at the sign out front of the old metal shack as I sucked down smoke.

VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS
Jefferson County MO Post
Thursdays all u can eat steak dinner $4.99
$2 Budlight $1 well drinks Always

As I finished my cigarette, I got up the nerve to deal with a chronic alcoholic deep in his cups. Putting on my game face with a shake of my shoulders, I ditched the cigarette to the asphalt and made my way across the lot, up a few steps, to the front door. It was locked. Through a sliver of window, I saw the dim light of the bar, intermittent flickering of a TV set through a haze of cigarette smoke. I knocked on the glass. After a few moments, a Hispanic guy in baggy jeans, white T-shirt three sizes too big, and bright red flat-brimmed Cardinals cap opened the door and held it that way, staring me down.

“Can I help you?”

“Just meeting a friend here,” I said.

“You got your card?”

“My ID?”

“Your membership card.”

I shook my head.

“Heroes only, homey, unless a member signs you in.”

“My friend will sign me in. Rusty.”

He chuckled a little bit and looked back toward the bar. “Yo Rust! You got a friend coming?”

“I ain’t got no friends,” I heard Rusty slur.

“Sorry homey,” the Hispanic guy said, and stepped back, letting the door shut in my face. I thought better of knocking again, hopped down the steps, and lit another cigarette, getting out my phone. Doug was a vet—he talked often about his time in Vietnam, a bottle of Jack cradled between his knees as he piloted a slick over the jungle. I found him in my contacts and tapped his name. He answered on the third ring.

“Hello?”

“Doug, it’s Frankie.”

“Oh shit. How you livin’, man?”

“I’m good. One of our friends is not so good.”

“What’s up?”

“You got a VFW membership?”

He laughed. “Yeah.”

“I’m down at the post in Arnold. Rusty’s inside, but they won’t let me in to talk to him. Members only, I guess.”

“Shit. Let me talk to Renee, see if she’ll watch the grandkid.”

“Cool.”

I posted up with my cigarette by Rusty’s purple Duster, a car that was older than me and in better condition than he. I lit another from the butt of the first and Doug called back. “I’ll be there in like half an hour.”

“Cool. Thanks, man.”

“You got it.”

My mind went a mile a minute so I decided to keep it occupied, calling Dave to give him an update. He answered on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Yeah, I’m down at the VFW Hall. It’s not open to the public but Doug’s coming down to go in there.”

“Awesome. I owe you guys big time.”

“You don’t owe us shit,” I said. “Thanks for letting me know about Rusty.”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Who’d you talk to at the Harbor House?”

“Debbie.”

Of course it had to be Debbie. “She says they got a bed?”

“Yeah, but she can’t guarantee it’ll be open in the morning.”

“And when’s the last intake?”

“After dinner. I think by seven.”

“All right. We’ll be cutting it close.”

“When I get out of work I’ll head up to the Harbor House.”

I took a drag and kept my eye on the door, even though I was leaning on Rusty’s car and it was unlikely he was going to get by me. “How’s Alison taking this? I know she and Rusty are close too.”

“She’s beside herself,” Dave said. “Feels like she should have done something.”

“There’s nothing we can do to stop someone from getting drunk if he’s dead set on it.”

“I know. She knows. I mean, we know it, you know? But it’s hard to feel that way when it happens.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Well I’ll let you get back to work. Maybe I’ll try Debbie.”

“All right. Thanks again.”

“Thank you,” I said, and hung up with him. I checked the time. Still a good twenty-five minutes before I could expect Doug—more like forty-five if he was operating on Doug time. I cycled through my phone and found Debbie’s cell number.

“Francis,” she answered on the second ring.

“Hey.”

“This better not be a social call, as I am at work.”

“No, it’s not. Though I am interested in how you’re doing.”

“I’m doing fine, Francis. Is this about Rusty?”

“Yeah. Waiting at the VFW in Arnold for him to come out. It could be a while. Think there’s any way we can get the admit time pushed back, just in case?”

She sighed. “Want me to bend the rules for you, huh?”

“Not for me,” I said. “For Rusty. For Dave. For Alison.”

“You know I will, butthead.” She laughed. “I always do. I just like making you sweat and grovel.”

“I deserve it.”

“Of course you do.”

My heart skipped a beat. I couldn’t help it. “Will you be there when we bring him in?”

“Miss me?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well then I’ll be sure to make LaDarius come do the intake.”

“You’re breaking my heart as always.”

She laughed again. “Just collect your buddy.”

“Given how long he’s been in there taking the edge off, he’s probably a pile of pudding by now.”

“Hope you brought a big spoon.”

“I’ll see you later.”

“If you’re lucky.”

I put my phone back in my pocket and lit another cigarette. The sun was slowly going down toward the horizon, casting the tin roof of the VFW in shades of purple. I paced, waited, paced, waited, and paced again. After about half an hour, Doug came rumbling into the lot on his bike. I gave him a wave and he saw me, steering around and backing his bike into the empty space next to Rusty’s Duster, taking off his helmet and shaking his long greasy hair free.

“You talk to him at all?” Doug said as he dismounted his bike like a movie cowboy.

“He wouldn’t sign me in,” I said.

“Well I guess I have to go have a talk with him myself, then,” he said. Just about anyone would listen to a talking-to from Doug more than one from me—he was a head taller, twice as wide, mostly muscle. His boots crunched the gravel as he ambled his way toward the door. I watched him knock and flash his membership card. The Hispanic guy gave me a dirty look as Doug pushed past him and through the door.

All I could do was wait. I thought about lighting another cigarette but my throat and lungs felt wrecked. I needed to find another way to kill three minutes.

I killed nine with three more cigarettes, and then Doug came out with Rusty dangling off his shoulder, feet barely touching the ground as he walked. When they got halfway across the lot, Rusty did a cartoonish double take toward me. “Frankie!” he said, then stumbled over to give me a hug that almost knocked me down. I patted him on the back, stood him upright as best I could, then backed off, the smell of his breath and the booze leaking from his pores enough to keep me sober another day. “Shoulda come in, I’da bought you a drink or three . . .”

“You wouldn’t sign me in.”

“Oh that was you? Oh shit.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry man.” He had the grave melodramatic seriousness only a guy crawling around the bottom of a bottle can manage. A bad actor trying poorly to emote.

“It’s okay,” I said. “We’re going to go get you detoxed.”

“What the hell for?”

“For a while,” I said, and patted him on the back. “Come on.”

“You may wanna pull your car around for him,” Doug said.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

Doug held Rusty vertical as I trotted over to the Nissan, got in, started it up, and pulled it around. Doug opened the back seat on the passenger side and poured Rusty in. Rusty tucked his legs in, and Doug closed the door behind him. I rolled down the passenger window hoping not to choke on Rusty’s stink. Doug came around to my side of the car. “You want I should follow you up there, help you get him in?”

“Nah, I should be good. Thanks, though.”

“No problem, man. Keep me posted?”

“Will do.”

“Cool, brother.” Doug knocked on the roof of the car, then walked back over to his bike, gearing back up. I turned toward the back seat and Rusty sat up. He saw himself in the rearview mirror and put a hand to his cockeyed salt-and-pepper pompadour.

“Shit, I look like shit.”

“And you smell like shit.”

Rusty looked down, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, man. I let you all down.”

“You’re still alive,” I said. “Next time you might not be so lucky.”

He sighed. “I guess I should do this shit for real, huh?”

“Depends. You wanna live? Cause if you don’t wanna live, I’ll just drop you back off at the door over there.”

“I wanna live.”

“Good. I want you to.”

“Thanks, man.”

“We’re gonna meet Dave at the Harbor House.”

“I don’t think I can face him,” Rusty said.

“He called about the spot to get you in.”

“I can’t look him in the eye.”

“Sure you can,” I said. “Now buckle up. And don’t puke in my car.”

The Harbor House was a treatment facility in South St. Louis near the border with St. Louis County. From its front door, you could walk a block in any direction and find just about any kind of trouble you wanted—abandoned brownstones doubling as trap houses and shooting galleries, ladies of the evening washing between their legs between dumpsters, a bar that offered a “relapse special”: a free drink for your twenty-four-hour coin. If you could get clean at the Harbor House, amidst all that temptation, you might actually stay that way.

Dave was waiting out front of the treatment center when we pulled up. He opened the back door on the passenger side of my car and leaned down to help Rusty get out. I killed the engine, got out, and walked around the front of the car. Rusty wouldn’t look Dave in the face, instead staring sullenly at the sidewalk.

“C’mon, Rusty,” I said. “We’re here.”

“I’m sorry alright!” he yelled loudly and suddenly toward the sky. Whenever I’d throw a tantrum as a kid my dad would call me Dirk Drama. I wanted to call Rusty the same, but knew he’d have no idea what I was talking about. So I just helped Rusty through the doors of the Harbor House. Dave followed us in. To the left of us, the cafeteria was empty but for a couple people cleaning up. To the right, the meeting room was completely empty. Since the inpatient program was on the second floor and there was no way Rusty could handle stairs at the moment, I waddled him to the elevator. He had to stop and brace himself against the wall.

I pressed the UP button. Dave came up behind us, putting his arm around Rusty and holding him upright. Rusty turned to face him and they locked eyes. Rusty closed his hard and they welled up with tears.

“I’m sorry,” he said, much quieter this time, and it sounded like he meant it.

“It’s okay, man, it’s okay,” Dave said, pulling him into a hug. They rocked there for a bit like a father comforting a sobbing child, even though Rusty was a head taller and a little older than Dave, the ex-con combat veteran turning small in the arms of the doughy West County businessman. The bell dinged, the elevator door opened, and I patted Rusty on the back.

“Let’s go, Rust.”

We three stepped into the elevator. I pressed the button for the second floor and we rode up in silence. The doors opened and we stepped out into the middle of the inpatient common room. To our right, the offices of the counselors and social workers and beyond that the women’s residential wing. To our left, the men’s residential wing. There in the common room, two shaky guys and one pretty young girl lounged in old beat-up chairs staring at the local news. The guys were off their detox meds, shaky live wires. The girl was obviously still doped up, nearly catatonic.

“Rusty,” Debbie said, coming out of the office. She was wearing her hair down, I noticed, dirty blonde and straight just past her shoulders. That wasn’t usual for work. I wondered if it was for me and tried not to get my hopes up. She smiled her adorably imperfect smile and put her hand on Rusty’s shoulder. “Let’s go get sat down and do your paperwork.”

“This is embarrassing,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Debbie.”

“Hey, you made it back, right?” she said. “But if you don’t get your head out of your ass, I’m gonna kick you in both.”

“Okay,” he said, head down like a sad puppy as she led him into the office. He sat down, and Debbie stood in the doorway, facing Dave and me.

“You need anything from us?” I asked.

“Still got his VA stuff in the computer,” Debbie said. “If you guys wanna wait downstairs, I’ll come chat with you once we’ve got him in detox.”

“Thanks, Debbie,” Dave said. She gave us a smile and a nod, then closed the office door and sat down at her desk across from Rusty. Dave and I took the stairs down and went out the front door. Standing on the sidewalk, I lit a cigarette. Dave leaned against the old brick wall. He looked down and shook his head.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t think I can sponsor him anymore,” Dave said.

“That’s fair,” I said. “I can do it, if he’ll have me.”

“I thought you couldn’t sponsor him?”

“He’s done with MARS and off parole, so I’m not his caseworker anymore. I can sponsor him now.”

Dave nodded.

“Besides,” I said. “I’m used to sponsees going out and drinking.”

He shook his head. “Me too . . . something different about this though.”

“What’s different?”

He sighed. “I don’t know, it just is.”

“He’s a drunk. Drunks drink, unless they’re working a program. It’s as simple as that.”

“I know. I just feel responsible.”

“That’s making it about you,” I said. “He chose to drink.”

“Thanks, man,” Dave said, and pulled me into a hug. I patted him on the back. “We know he’s safe tonight, right?”

“Right.”

The front doors swung open and LaDarius, one of the other counselors, stepped out lighting a cigarette. He was tall, black, built like a linebacker, and dressed fresh in a red T-shirt that matched his Jordans, jeans cuffed and creased. “So Rusty’s back for another try?” he said, exhaling smoke.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Hope it takes this time.”

“Yup.”

LaDarius posted up against the wall, took a drag, then looked at me and laughed, shaking his head. “I shoulda knew you were coming.”

“Why is that?”

“Because Debbie put makeup on mid-shift.”

“Oh really?”

“How do you know it wasn’t for me?” Dave joked and we all laughed.

I took a drag. “So does that mean she’s not seeing that one dude, what’s-his-name, anymore?”

“Don’t play like you don’t know his name,” LaDarius said. “Just ’cause you don’t like the motherfucker don’t mean you can play like you don’t know his name.”

“Okay. Doctor Jeff, who is qualified, as a doctor, to speak about certain issues many of you other people in the program might not understand.”

“That’s the one,” LaDarius said. “You for real didn’t know she stopped seeing him?”

“Well I don’t go to meetings where she goes, since she asked me not to,” I said.

“And you never run into anyone who does go to meetings where she goes and maybe check up on her a little bit?”

“Maybe a little bit.”

“I know that’s right.” LaDarius laughed and shook his head. He took a final drag, put his cigarette out in the ashtray by the door. “Once I clock back in Debbie’ll be down.”

“Good seeing you, man,” I said.

“Good seeing you,” Dave said. LaDarius dapped me up, shook Dave’s hand, then headed inside.

Dave and I waited in silence—there wasn’t much for us to say to one another at this point. I lit another cigarette from the butt of the one I was smoking. When I was about halfway through it, Debbie came out and put one of her own between her lips. I lit it for her, she nodded thanks, and leaned up against the wall, pulling her baggy blue and pink cardigan—which matched both her jeans and her pink Chuck Taylors—closed over the tank top she had on underneath, shivering a little bit with the early fall chill.

“So everything all set?” Dave asked.

“Yeah,” Debbie said. “His VA benefits should cover him for another twenty-eight days.”

“Thanks so much for getting him in,” Dave said.

“I hope he wants it more this time,” Debbie said. “He sounded remorseful, but we all do when we come in, you know?”

“I hope so too,” Dave said. His phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at it. “I’ve gotta take this. Alison.” He answered walking away from us, leaving Debbie and me standing there smoking.

“So what about you, how are you doing?” Debbie sized me up with a hint of a sly grin.

“I’m good,” I said. “You?”

“I’ve had better months,” Debbie said. “Jeff and I broke up.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

She smirked. “No you’re not.”

“Well I can’t help but think you deserve better.”

“I don’t know, a handsome sober doctor is pretty good.”

“Handsome? Really?”

“He has a very nice jawline.”

“Way to hit below the belt,” I said.

“Oh quit being a baby, you do not have a weak chin,” she said, laughing.

“And you have the perfect smile.”

She rolled her eyes as she said, “You’re full of it.” But she was blushing a little too.

“So what time do you get off tonight?”

She looked over at Dave, still on the phone with his wife, out of earshot, then turned back to me. “For your sake, I hope it’s before you do.” She put her cigarette out in the ashtray by the door. “Tell Dave not to worry, we’ve got it all covered. And go wait at my place. I know you still have a key.” She opened the door and gave me a quick look that would have given the Dalai Lama a wet dream, before heading in and closing the door behind her.

“Everything okay?” Dave said, putting his phone back in his pocket as he came back over toward me. “I was just keeping Alison in the loop.”

“They’ve got it covered,” I said.

“And what might you be grinning about?”

“Is it that obvious?”

He laughed. “Yeah it is. Go with God. Godspeed. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. All that jazz.”

“Right,” I said. “If I hear anything more, I’ll keep you updated. About Rusty.”

“Something tells me if I need to get ahold of Debbie about anything, I know who to call.” He patted me on the shoulder, then walked over and got in his car, pulling away from the curb and doing a U-turn to head north on Broadway. I got in my car and thought about how what I was about to do was probably a terrible idea, that it was going to rekindle a bunch of old feelings, that it wasn’t going to end up the way I wanted it to, and that I’d be better off just going home, taking a cold shower, saying a prayer, and hopping into bed. Alone.

But she was right. I still had a key.

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