Reading at the Half-Way House
James Valvis

All that winter we went without heat.
Jack and I huddled next to the stove,
dial twisted to 500 degrees.
Jack rested his torn socks on a chair;
I was reading whatever book I found
lying in the street or left behind
at the movie theater where I worked:
one day Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth
and the next: The Joy of No Sex.
It didn’t much matter to me what I read.
Jack had evicted the others, Ed, Fred,
Two young men he met at NA meetings,
for not paying rent, Ed’s closet
so full of beer cans we filled 8 bags,
Fred having lived as a basement rat,
drawing on himself in ballpoint pen
his planned tattoos; now
it was just me and Jack, my board
not enough to keep the heat on.
We didn’t say much, but often
he would ask what I was reading,
and I would tell him about the book,
its plot or subject, and how I found it.
Jack nodded, staring into the oven
like someone looking into a television
whose picture had frozen, and sighed.
He always sighed, and that was my cue
to return to my Harlequin romance.
Finally, as spring neared, he told me
he never could get into reading.
He tried, but then he had to get stoned.
He envied me, he said, for having this
way out of this cold, idiotic kitchen
that wouldn’t kill me. I smiled.
It was true that I had quit drugs
and rarely ever drank alcohol.
I didn’t tell him, though, that reading
could be addictive, could be the reason
a man might end up in this kind of place,
that anything that controls a man is slavery,
and even a virtue can become a vice.
Young, maybe I didn’t know it myself.
Sitting by the putrid, hot breath of the oven,
almost penniless, no car, no girlfriend,
no prospects to better my lot at all,
stuck in this half-way house for druggies,
my one thought was I had just two chapters left
before I needed to hunt for my next fix.

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