Free Fiction: The Circle

Free Fiction: The Circle


Sometimes group therapy is all you need to take the next step. Just ask Ray...

     The Circle

     The basement room fills slowly, as rooms like this usually do. I’m here first. I like to watch the people drag in after long days of work or family life or Netflix-and-raw-cookie-dough binges. I compare my journey to the stages of everyone else. Better than the man who always wears concert t-shirts. Much worse off than the CEO, ex-military gal likely already immune to certain stressors given the nature of her work—so I don’t beat myself up too badly. She has a leg up on me, after all.

      Mostly, I think I’ve hit a happy middle. At least with this circle of folks. Not much worse off than many. Not much better than the rest. Right in the middle.

      I’d been much better off than all the other participants in the last circle of chairs I sat in—even the seats were better. Padded cushions.

      I had left that group fairly quickly. Hard to be pulled up to a higher level of thinking when you’re already five steps ahead of the whole pack. My process required more depth. More lines of thought that I’d not explored. The only way to grow.

      The plastic chairs’ metal legs moan across the cement floor as one by one the participants scoot and arrange and vie for a favored spot in the circle. Mostly women at these things. Swollen eyes and lifeless complexions. Longer hair pulled back in lazy ponytails. A few men, though, likely a little grayer around the temples and in the facial hair than they were this time last year.

      I know I am. With any more pigment loss, I’ll be snow-white in eight months.

      A little grayer around the temples. A little saggier under the eyelids. It’s the hazard pay that we dish out to the great tragedies in our life.

      Funny how tragedy can seep into skin cells, into hair follicles. Changing the very fabric of one’s appearance. Organs pay a price, too. People in these circles speak of antacid meds and similar concoctions like during the breaks and before and after the sessions start. Sometimes, the conversations are nothing more than consumer alerts: Try this one. No, that one doesn’t work. I’m a big fan of… Fill in the blank with the latest and greatest acid blockers and over-the-counter sleep aids.

      And then there’s the harder-core stuff. What we all warn each other not to do, but most have tried some variation nonetheless. Unchecked alcohol consumption. Street drugs. Too many prescriptions from doctor hopping.

      Hushed whispers toss between a few participants before our fearless, albeit damaged, leader arrives to organize us into one cohesive gripe fest. Whispers only, as though the basement of the recreation club is hallowed ground. Whispers as though fully audible speech would send another member into the throes of anguish.

      Like we all aren’t already there.

      Heavy footsteps on the wooden stairs. My last group had two people in wheelchairs, so the Methodist church across town made their accessible-friendly sanctuary available twice a week. That was nice of them. But they didn’t allow food or drink in their newly renovated space. So, those that wished to cleanse sorrow via coffee and pies had something else to grieve.                                                                      

     That was the same group that had proved me to be more advanced than I’d imagined. Comparatively speaking. So I’d left that one after only a few weeks. I do think about those folks sometimes. Baring their souls in those padded seats with not even a powdered doughnut to look forward to afterward.

      I like this anonymous group. Not because of the sweets and treats, but because of that happy medium. I like blending. While tragedy paints hair gray and sags the skin, it often hangs a neon sign on your forehead that says “I’m in pain. Ask me about it.” And after being out in the universe and having people ask so much, it’s nice to be in the middle.



      Only participate if you want to.

      The footsteps belong to Seth. He brought the sweets. I’d started the coffee pot as soon as I got here. Pamela had asked the first ones in if they’d handle that task. I didn’t mind. Gave me something to do while I waited and watched the people. I don’t drink the stuff. Makes me jittery. I have trouble sleeping anyway. Too wired. 

      The ancient pot starts popping and sizzling, sending wafts of smoky brew into the room. Seth lays out the mini cheesecake bites on the refreshment table. I have my eye on the white chocolate bit with the tiny raspberry icing curl. I’d bought a tray like it last week. To do my Netflix-and-binge-cheesecake-bites marathon. I know how that tiny raspberry curl melts on the tongue, lighting up tangy and sweet taste buds simultaneously.

       I nod my approval to Seth. He nods back. Aside from our dessert choices and the losses we’ve suffered, Seth and I would never run in the same circles. Only this slowly forming circle of chairs in this random basement.

      Pamela comes down the steps. I know it’s her because she always wears boots with heels that clack-scoot across the wooden steps then click on the concrete. This is my sixth time here. Fourth time being the first to arrive. I’m learning footsteps. Attention to detail seems to be heightened after everything I’ve been through.

      The members who had been reverent with their whispers elevate their voices over the extra bodies and scooting chairs and heels on concrete. Pamela shakes a few hands and motions for us to get started.

      Two minutes past our scheduled start time. I don’t know if anyone but me notices that detail.

      “Good evening. Let’s open in a moment of silence.” Pamela would prefer to outright pray, I think, but the mix of beliefs—or lack thereof—represented here forces her to take this route. As the group falls in line, the clock behind me pounds out the seconds. Time echoes off the bare cinderblock walls. The coffee pot gives another pop and bubble. I try to focus on that. The smell. The steam.

      Most people bow their heads and close their eyes. Some bow, but don’t close. They look down at their crotches or the floor.

      I do neither.

      Head up. Eyes wide open. Always watching. Waiting for the next detail, sound, or alarm.

      Pamela suggested I get checked out for PTSD. Maybe I will. Someday.

      I scan the group, careful to note anyone like me disrespectful enough to gawk around. Eye contact in this context would be like speaking in an elevator that’s only traveling two floors. It’s a face-forward, mouth-shut kind of moment. No one else is looking, though, so I shift silently in my orange plastic seat and let my eyes linger over the group.

      Ten strong tonight. There were twelve last week.

      I wonder what they think about with bowed heads and closed eyes. Are they communing with their higher power? Maybe they think about the ones they’ve lost. Maybe their minds are simply empty, all mental capacity spent on surviving another week. Another day. Another half hour.

      Tragedy does that too. It cuts time into odd chunks to be overcome. The fresher and more severe the loss, the smaller the chunks. Minute by minute. Minutes to hours. Hours to afternoons or evenings. And so on.

      Until day to day. Then week to week.

      Until the ticking of the clock and the squares on the calendar with their sharp right angles fall into a new proper place as background noise. Or a simple harmless sheet of paper marking away time while it dangles from the Santa Maria Island tourist magnet on the front of the refrigerator...

      And there. That detail. Those blasted magnets from her trips. And her last trip… She loves those magnets. And the photos that come from frolicking in the waves with Dad and the joy she gets from retelling their adventures.

      One last trip.  

      I hate grief. But coming here. With these people. I understand it better. I appreciate it more than those who skip this step and go it alone without thought about what will happen once something happens.

      Once they make something happen. Or simply let it happen.

      Whichever the case.

      Pam raises her head and greets us once more. As if that silent moment erased her first greeting. There are no new faces tonight. No new depressed griever to introduce to the rest of the depressed grievers. So she gets right to it.

      “Who’d like to start this evening? Share any new triumphs? New fears?”

      A few people shift their feet, uncross one leg and then re-crossing the opposite leg. Some people look over the heads of those in front of them to the bare wall. I have a view of the stairs. I prefer to watch the exits and try to never sit with my back facing one. Exposed. Vulnerable.

      One brave soul opens into a mundane retelling of the last few days. Work. Meals. Sleep. Then gets to the point of how cruel life is that it marches right on. Unyielding with the dirty dishes and laundry piles. Why couldn’t it have more respect? Pause. Have the sun stand still while we all—I like how she included the entire group in her soliloquy—while we all take a breath and deal. This one, Becky, lost her husband to a drunk driver. Now she’s the widowed mother of two boys who desperately need discipline from a father figure.

      “Thank you, Becky. It is unfair. It makes us feel so tiny, doesn’t it? That things continue on when we’re hurting so badly?” Pamela digs in her ever-handy giant canvas bag for the square, pink box of tissues—lotion free—and hands it to Phillip who starts the box around the circle like a hot potato.

      How interesting. Some people pass the box quickly. Resolved to keep the tears bottled up. Some people take three or four, even though the saline streams haven’t started flowing.


      Becky takes three and cleans herself up. The box reaches me. I hesitate for a microsecond. I haven’t cried in ages. Don’t know when I’ll cry again, but it won’t be tonight. I’ll stay in the middle. Somber, quiet. No tears. I think it’s the best way to blend in.

      And I like the middle.

      I pass the box back to Pamela and she tucks it under her chair. “Ray, would you like to say something tonight? It’s been a few weeks.” She pats my knee. The tap ripples down to my toes and up into my throat. To stay in the middle, I know I have to contribute. Carefully contribute. And without too much—or too little—protest.

      So I stall, if only for ten echoey seconds. I feel the others’ eyes on me. Waiting. Wondering. Patient. They’ve all been in my shoes. A few haven’t heard me speak yet. They only know my name. And that my “it” is my mom.


      That tiny little pronoun that means so much in contexts like this one.


      There’s the chunk of time and life and memories before it.

      There’s the chunk of time and life and memories after it.

      It becomes the most important event in the universe. For a while. Until the dulling happens and the it becomes more of a flat sepia photograph and less of a three-dimensional technicolor virtual reality.

      I take a breath. “Well. I guess I’m struggling mostly with guilt this week.”


      Careful, Ray. “Yeah. I’m this middle-aged man who misses his mother. Lots of guys my age have dead parents. But they weren’t…didn’t”

      “Most people don’t lose their loved one so tragically.”

      I nod. She nods, prodding me to continue. Deepen the connection by baring more of my soul. I look down at my shoes and continue. “Mom calls me all the time. Bugs me to death. At any given moment my phone has twelve missed calls and they’re all from her. Dad sometimes calls, but it’s always Mom who…” I pause for effect. And to figure out a direction. I should’ve had this one planned out better.

      I glance up at eager faces. Eager for that connection. That similarity. They must wonder what this man means by guilt? Does he carry the same guilt? Should I feel guilty?

      And some of them do feel guilt. If Dan had come home from work five minutes earlier, maybe his little girl would’ve skipped the playtime in the backyard to give her daddy a hug and never stepped on the hornets’ nest. Dan feels guilty.

      Maybe if Lorrianne had chosen couples’ counseling over therapy with a bartender her husband wouldn’t have resurrected his smoking habit to dull his misery. And maybe the cancer wouldn’t have suffocated him. Lorrianne feels guilty.

      Those ever-haunting I-should’ves. I-could’ves.

      I feel guilt. That’s why I’m here. To work it out. To hear how others work it out. To watch the path that grief puts one on and know what may lie ahead for me.

      Everyone in this circle struggles with past guilt. And present guilt. I’m working on future guilt, but they can’t know that. I have to stay in the middle…

      “Mom and Dad go to Santa Maria Island every other summer. This will be the summer. And she always buys another fridge magnet to add to her collection,” I say. “That will be her last magnet.” I get to the point. “I wish my Mom would die of cancer. Or old age. Or anything else but…”

      “But how she did die.”

      I nod at Pamela’s observation.

      “And what kind of a son am I that I would wish my parent to die of cancer?” I glance at Lorrianne who’s now using one of her two tissues to dab at her eyes. She doesn’t look at me. I can’t blame her.

      “Does anyone have any thoughts? Anyone ever felt something similar?”

      Suzanne mentions how she could’ve accepted a terminal physical diagnosis and untimely passing of her teenage son rather than the fact that he committed suicide. She gets where I’m coming from. I nod at her. She gives one of those microsecond half smiles.

      If they get where I’m coming from, I can stay hidden in the middle.

      The group goes quiet. Most look to Pamela to get us going again.

      “This may be a little off the present topic, Ray, but I do have an observation.”

      That jarring, like the jarring from her pat on my knee, starts again deep in my gut. What will she bring to the surface? Will I need the pink tissue box or the exit? I realize my chest hurts because I’m holding my breath. I exhale.

      She continues. “Did you catch that you’re still using present tense?”

      I stare at her. I’m frozen. No. No I did not. Catch that.

      She must see my scared eyes and pats my knee. “It’s quite alright and it’s quite common. I’ve just not seen someone use present-tense verbs quite this long.”

      Seth spoke up. “It took me weeks to stop that. I think I stopped a month after the funeral.” He’ll surely save me the white chocolate cheesecake bite now. At least slip me the raspberry curl on top.

      Becky now. “Mine too. Like Seth’s. The closure of the ceremony put the whole thing in the past. No less pain, but maybe acceptance?” She was reaching. Trying to sound therapeutic and failing miserably. But the group is nothing if not forgiving.

      “Mine was quick. I saw how the cancer ate him little by little. So I knew it was coming. Maybe that’s why.” Lorrianne referring to her chain-smoking husband. Forgiving me of bringing up cancer.

      I breathe deeply, allowing the oxygen to clear my head. Stay the course. In the middle. Seen but unseen.

      “We won’t—didn’t have a service.” I see understanding flood their faces. That must be the reason, they think. A collective thought. Group mentality. A unified understanding.

      But they understand nothing.

      Present tense. What an oversight. No one had ever brought this up with me before. And I’ve been in lots of circles with lots of people sharper than Pamela and Seth.

      I try to shake off my mistake. “Her body… Dad won’t—can’t handle the thought of the ligature marks. Too much makeup will—would have been needed.” I struggle with the wording. I can’t believe no one caught this. I’m almost ready for the pink box. Or to bolt toward the stairway.

      I aim my eyes up and to the right onto the bare wall. Past it, actually. Up into the gymnasium above us. Out into the street beyond. Out east to Mom’s house. Where she cooks dinner tonight and dotes over Dad and rearranges those blasted fridge magnets. And no doubt she’s called me ten times since tonight’s circle started. I’ll have to clear my cache and memory card.


      I’m still not ready. Clearly more time is needed. 

       “Anyway, they haven’t caught the guy.”

      “Yet,” Pamela says. “They haven’t caught the guy yet.”

      Lots of nods.

      “And I noticed you’re trying to change your wording now. Be patient with yourself. These things take time. Lean on us. We’ll help you through.”

      “Thanks.” I nod toward the tissue box, force my dry eyes to drip a little, and Pamela hands me the tissues while she urges a fellow griever to share.

      The circle moves like hands of a clock. And in an hour, the sharing is over. I get pats on the shoulder. I give pats on other shoulders.

      “Here, Ray.” Seth hands me the white chocolate cheesecake bite on a white paper napkin. I decline the cup of coffee. I thank him.

      Still holding the treat, I thank Pamela for her time. I ease my way to the corner of the room and watch near the base of the steps as the others mingle and continue sharing and patting and wiping tears. I won’t be back here again.

      I may have lost my hiding place in the middle. But, I think after several of these groups, I’ve learned what happens on the other end of loss. For those victims of death and all its ugliness. For those victims that must endure and overcome the chunks of time. Until the dulling happens. 

      I picture Dad coming to one of these after it happens. Not this particular group, of course. I’ll find one for him a couple of towns over. Find a way to convince him better groups are worth the drive.

      When he’s ready. I won’t push.

      I turn my back to my fellow circle members and scale the steps. Into the sweat and old leather of the recreation hall’s small gym. Out into the warm, starry night. I’m careful not to squash the cheesecake as I slide into the driver’s seat of my SUV.

      I lay the dessert in my lap.

      I adjust the rearview mirror. I’ve lowered the backrow seats into the floor.

      I’ve lined the back with heavy plastic. The bag next to me contains all I need to make an end of her. Painless. Quick.

      Unlike the guilt I’ll feel. But I know how to deal with it now. I’ve had the therapy beforehand.

      I did these things—lowered the seats, lined the plastic, filled the bag—this morning in the privacy of my garage. I guess I always knew tonight would be my last night in the circle.

      If I had any doubts, Pamela took them from me with the verb thing.

      I pick off the raspberry curl from the top of the treat. I let it melt on my tongue. My senses have been heightened for days. Weeks. And how amazing that something so simple and small can light up taste buds and pleasure centers, melting away doubts and fear. 

      I swallow the sweet nectar and start the engine. Aim the SUV east toward my parents’ home.

      If I still need a circle when Dad’s time approaches, I’ll be sure to use the past tense in my narratives.

      In my new circle. With faces I’ve not seen before, but grief I’ll know well.

      I’ll stay in the middle of the pack.

      I’ll arrive first and brew the coffee.

      And I’ll be sure to bring the little cheesecake bites with the raspberry-flavored curls.