The parents meetings are six p.m. Mondays in the Good Samaritan Hospital basement. The same 25 parents always show up, and the rest are those who attend two or three times and disappear. Initially, Bill Franklin thought it was a huge waste of time, but he slowly accepted these people are the only ones who understood the rage, the embarrassment, and the ongoing misery.
The parents sit around the long table. You state your name, your child’s name and their addiction, and then you inform the group what occurred since the last gathering. Sometimes it’s an overdose or death; other times the child entered rehab or found a job with healthcare benefits, and things are finally looking up, fingers crossed. Lots of finger crossing in the meetings that are foremost a parents’ pep rally. Hang in, be tough, don’t enable, and never give up are repeated. Never ever give up, because you never know when things will change. Cheryl Wilton, Barbara and Fred’s daughter, overdosed four times, and was squatting in a building in Camden, and she just graduated from a good college–Bates in Maine–and was accepted to a top-tier medical school. So you never know.
“The brightest light may be behind the darkest cloud,” says a cornball poster thumbtacked to the wall.
Actually, you never do know. Though you have a decent idea how things will play out, and it’s rarely the happily ever after everyone prays for.
Over the years, Bill Franklin became friends with two fathers — Alvin Conan, a CPA and fellow Islanders fan, and Marty Abbott, an ex-priest, who raised three adopted children who are always in trouble, and often in prison. Marty observed, “When jail is the best option, you know you’ve done one hell of a job raising them. God help us.”
Marty ends many statements with “God help us, “it’s God’s will”, or he or she are “in our prayers”.
After a parents’ meeting, Bill says goodnight to Marty and Alvin. Unlocking the Camry, he mentions:
“I need a drink.”
They all needed a drink, and the six p.m. meetings were followed by 7:45 gatherings at Mary Carroll’s, an Irish pub in Babylon, New York. Mary Carroll’s is the perfect after meeting spot — nearby with generous parking, the pub is never crowded, unless the Jets or Giants are on Monday Night Football. The bartenders pour a proper Guinness, too, and the shepherd’s pie is exceptional. The three fathers continue discussing their children, always asking, will it end well?
The honest answer, probably not; the odds are stacked against shiny outcomes.
Over the years, Bill’s son, John, died; Marty’s children remained incarcerated; and Alvin’s daughter, Marie, would vanish for months.
After John passed away, Bill stopped attending the meetings. Why go, John was dead. But Bill missed sharing memories, and it was the only effective support he receives.
One night Bill couldn’t make the six p.m. meeting. He texts Marty he will meet them at the pub; he’ll have Guinnesses waiting and be sitting far away from the jukebox. The old Wurlitzer is unnaturally loud, and contains every song by Billy Joel, who grew up in nearby Hicksville. Some evenings you hear “New York State of Mind” and “Uptown Girl” continuously.
Entering the pub, Marty and Alvin see Bill smiling with three fresh pints.
“What’s the grin for?” Marty says. “Win the lottery?”
“Hope so,” Alvin says. “He owes me forty. With interest that’s–”
“–forty dollars,” Bill says, removing two twenties from his wallet. “How the meeting go?”
“Didn’t lose anyone; thank you, Lord,” Marty says, draping his raincoat over a barstool. “Let’s drink to that. And maybe you can tell us why you’re so smiley, officer Franklin.”
After three early Billie Joel recordings, the next song is by another Long Island artist, LL Cool J from Bay Shore. Bill remembers when “Mama Said Knock You Out” was blasting all over Manhattan.
“I’m gonna knock you out.
Mama said, knock you out.
I’m gonna knock you out.
Mama said, knock you out.”
LL is no threat to Cole Porter or John Lennon, Bill thinks, laughing.
“Woo, just a fucking minute,” Alvin says, wiping Guinness foam off his mustache. “Just a fucking minute here. What’s happening to our weekly pity party? Bill, you gonna tell us or keep it a mystery, like the Sphinx?”
“New medication,” Marty guesses.
“Same medication,” Bill says. “Bupropion, and the occasional pints and shots.”
The bartender, Phil, yells if it’s okay to switch the TV to college hoops? Villanova is playing, and he has money on “Nova”.
Phil aims the remote over Alvin’s baldhead, and grunts. Saint Joe’s 72, Villanova 70, 32 seconds left.
“Only down two,” Bill says.
“And I’m giving seven.” Phil switches to a replay of last year’s Australian Open.
“Djokovic wins in four sets if you want to bet on it,” Alvin says.
“I’d lose that too. Can I pour you gents another stout?”
Bill waves a finger over the glasses.
“Alright,” Bill says, “so the smiling? Well, I have something special to share. Let’s sit in that booth over there.”
Bill tells Phil to keep the tab open and send over potato skins.
Phil says, “Vill-a-no-va.”
Sitting down, Bill reaches in a Dick’s Sporting Goods bag, removing papers secured with red rubber bands. Tapping the printed pages, he says, “So.”
“So,” Marty says, “you have some downloaded pages.”
“Two hundred and forty-six pages worth. Adding up to what us in law enforcement call: the probable cause. The facts, beyond a reasonable doubt, that prove guilt.”
“A case you’re working on,” Marty says, “and you want to discuss it with a CPA and a social worker?”
Bill drains his Guinness, placing the glass precisely on the cocktail napkin’s circular stain. “I don’t want to discuss it with an accountant and social worker. I want to talk it over with two friends, who’ve traveled through the same lower rings of hell, and might appreciate the information here–“
–Phil places three pints on the table and points at Alvin, who finishes his last sip. Leaving with the empty glasses, Phil says: “Your food should be out in ten. But don’t hold me to that time frame.”
“In another twenty,” Bill says, “three more Guinnesses.”
“I have to drive home,” Marty says.
“I’ll drive you.”
“A drunk driving another drunk isn’t the wisest solution.”
“Better than two drunks driving,” Bill grins, tossing his badge on the table. “Besides, our get out of jail card.”
“Nice abuse of power, Sergeant,” Marty says. “So about this ‘probable cause’.”
“Alright,” Bill says, “you know John’s story. I’ve told it so often you can recite it from memory. A great kid gets hooked on opioids. Oxycontin, then heroin, and then . . . goodnight. Two months shy of his twenty-sixth birthday. Twenty-fuckin’-six?”
“We know John’s story, sadly. So where you going with–“
–Bill taps the stack of papers, and says:
“What if I told you John did not die.”
“I’d say, that’s surprising,” Marty says. “Seeing we attended his funeral, and anniversary mass.”
“I am telling you, John did not die. He didn’t . . . He was murdered and for the oldest reason of all.”
“Money, profit. And it’s all documented here. And there are thousands of additional articles full of collaborating evidence.”
Alvin and Marty glance at one another, taking long swallows of stout.
Marty, the ex-Jesuit, starts with the soft tone he employs at meetings when a parent cannot endure any more pain: “Bill, listen to me–don’t worry, I’m not going into scripture quoting mode–you need to let it go. Have to, buddy. Before it swallows you whole again. You don’t want to end up like Jim and Sheila Sullivan, aka the Walking Dead, do you? . . . Bill, you loved your boy; we hear it every time you mention him. But he’s gone, and you need to just let it go, or you’ll be following right behind John.”
“Know what, I’d do anything to be with him.”
“We know that,” Alvin shouts. “GODDAMN it, Bill, we were having so much fun just a minute ago. I wish you wouldn’t ruin my fun, cause I don’t get much of it . . . Guys, I think it’s time for Jamesons. Go full Irish, whataya say?”
Bill says, yes; Marty declines the whiskey.
“Two Jamesons, neat,” Alvin yells to Phil.
“Guys, I didn’t intend to ruin our fun,” Bill says. “The thing is, I feel better now than I have in a long time. You see, I could never make sense of John dying how he did; and how it was ‘a plague’, something natural and unavoidable. Cause everywhere I looked I saw the same pattern. Painkillers leading to heroin, and then the morgue or funeral home. And the fuckin’ numbers, no one ever saw such numbers . . . I’ve sent many away for killing one person. Guess how many this person killed?”
“What the hell you talking about,” Marty asks.
“I’m saying, one murder gets you prison. Or death row in a redneck state. But this is the worst mass murder case ever. Bundy, Gacy, all of ‘em combined couldn’t touch–.”
“–Bill, I’m about to send out a search party. You’ve gone completely off the reser–“
“–Alright . . . let me put this into perspective. Alvin, you still watch those awful war documentaries with the black and white film?”
“And you’re still married. Okay, how many Americans killed in World War Two?”
“U.S. casualties, four hundred and forty thou.”
“Fifty-seven thousand, roughly. For a grand total of half a million.”
“Thank you. Half a million,” Bill says, “in the last big wars. Which is . . . fewer than how many died in this recent slaughter. And it wasn’t an unavoidable plague. The entire opioid massacre is man-made. And the son of a bitch killed my John, and he tried killing yours too!”
Marty glances behind him, hoping to see potato skins, which could alter the conversation.
Bill wipes his eyes with his sleeve.
“Christ,” Bill says, “I cry more than most grannies. Give me a second . . . So, it was awful not knowing why, thinking something so terrible can happen for no reason. I couldn’t live in a world like that.”
“A major theme in the Old Testament,” Marty says.
“Everything’s a major theme in the Old Testament,” Bill says. “What I’m saying is, when I found out the who and the why I stopped blaming myself. Cause it wasn’t anything I did.”
Marty and Alvin exchange looks, as Phil gently places two overflowing shots on the table.
“How are those potato skins coming?” Alvin asks.
“Can’t rush greatness.”
“How about mediocrity?”
“That too,” Phil says. “Soon as they’re done, I’ll wait before bringing ‘em over. They’ll be cold, yeah, but I don ‘t want you burning your mouths.”
“You’re a saint,” Marty says, wanting to keep the mindless banter going, but Phil walks off.
“So,” Alvin says, pointing at the documents, “exactly what are you talking about? Please, while we’re still middle aged.”
“If we live to a hundred and eight,” Marty mumbles.
Bill grabs the documents. “Let’s start with a history lesson?”
“Let’s listen to Billy Joel–”
“–Opioids are terrible. Right?”
“Terrible,” Alvin agrees, “fucking terrible. My beautiful daughter a prime example. And our niece another casualty.”
“No,” Bill says, “not another casualty. Another victim.”
“Quickly, Matlock, state your case,” Marty says. “I want to be out of here before the food arrives.”
“Alright. Before nineteen eighty-six, opioids were only prescribed for palliative care, and stage-four cancer. That’s it. You weren’t dying, you couldn’t get them. Because?”
Alvin glances at Marty. He’ll answer.
“Too addictive. No matter how many rehabs and overdoses, they’ll keep using. A nightmare, it all should’ve been locked up.”
“Should have been and was,” Bill says. “If you were about to die, enjoy. But only then. And then all this happens.” Bill digs through the papers until he comes to a page with an adhesive bookmark. “Here, read this.”
Bill passes the pages to Marty, pointing at the underlined passage.
“I saw something about this on TV — they didn’t want Oxycontin being ‘a niche drug’.”
“Exactly. Purdue Pharma didn’t want that, cause they wanted to earn billions. But it had to remain a niche drug, because it’s so dangerous. Purdue knew that, their own research confirmed it, but they found a couple paragraphs in an obscure letter to the editor in a medical journal and based an entire business plan around it. Wasn’t vetted by research. Lies in a magazine was all they needed to declare Oxycontin safe–“
“–The government wouldn’t allow that.”
“The government?” Bill says with a moan. “In D.C. there are three pharma lobbyists for every member of the Senate and House. That’s lots of dinners and favors, and they’re the number-one source of campaign funds. Giuliani had a million dollar retainer to protect Purdue Pharma.”
“It’s here in these papers.”
“You’d think,” Alvin says, “the media would be all over it.”
“Yeah,” Bill says, “until you realize pharmaceutical advertising keeps most newspapers afloat, and you can’t watch TV for five minutes without commercials for pills you never heard of. So with politicians unwilling to confront them, and the media dependent on pharma advertising, they were free to promote Oxycontin as the all-purpose cure.”
“I was prescribed it for my ankle–”
“–Read this,” Bill says, tossing papers at his friends. “Any pain, big or small, it was the miracle cure. Sore neck from a long flight, OxyContin. Tore up your knee like my John, OxyContin. And here’s a prescription for sixty pills, kid, and lucky you, automatic refills as a special future-junkie bonus. Always overprescribe, even if Tylenol or an ice pack is all you need. And you gotta read about the babies.”
“Babies,” Marty says, “I don’t want to hear it.”
Bill empties the Irish whiskey.
“Helpless newborns. That’s how fuckin’ evil Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, who own the company, are. The minute the umbilical cords are cut, the withdrawals kick in. Nurses say nothing’s like the shrieks from addicted babies, howling all day. Torturing thousands of infants, because the Sacklers wanted more money. When they already had so much . . . Newborns who never did nothing to no one.”
Marty lowers his head: “Welcome to the world, children–”
“–Hey,” Phil laughs from behind the bar, “keep it down. Or I’ll have to shut you off.”
“We don’t want that.”
“Babies?” Alvin says quietly, “babies?”
For a long time, the fathers are silent, watching Djokovic close out the fourth set.
“Could they be any slower with the food?” Alvin says.
“Bad things come to he who waits.”
Bill stretches the rubber bands around the papers. “I’ll print you copies.”
“And what do you want us to do?”
“Realize how little control we had over what went wrong. So you stop blaming yourselves.”
“That’d be nice . . . and Bill, what are you going to do?”
Bill slides the papers into the plastic bag.
“What am I gonna do?” Bill finishes his stout. “You know what gets me most about all this? I put people away for stealing groceries . . . cause they were starving. How’s that? I sent a woman upstate for burning a guy with an iron who molested her niece . . . Twenty-six years on the force, I did so many fuckin’ things I shouldn’t have. But how can I ignore this? . . . The . . . bastard thought it’s okay what they did to my John, and your children . . . I’d do anything for John, and, though he’s gone, that doesn’t change. Does it?”
Marty glances at Alvin over his pint glass as he swallows.
“No, it doesn’t,” Alvin says. “But going after a multinational corporation? How you plan to–”
“–No. Just the one who signed off on everything. Richard Sackler, Purdue Pharma’s CEO . . . a doctor, he knew what opioids do. Listen: when the Attorney Generals came down on Purdue, he starts hiding billons. And when he realizes they’re in deep shit, he declares bankruptcy. Cause it’s harder getting money from a bankrupted entity. And in the end, Purdue paid some fines, but the Sacklers were allowed to keep billions more. Sure, kill half a million and return to your country clubs and mansions, and, how about this — no admission of guilt. When I get you a copy of the papers, you’ll read how the bastard said his family wasn’t guilty of anything. Indignant anyone would think it. The fuck!”
“So,” Alvin asks, “you going to pay the doctor a visit?”
“Not going to . . . Did.”
Alvin unconsciously grabs his empty pint.
“You stop by his office?”
“No. I borrowed a decommissioned squad car, and drove to Greenwich, Connecticut, and waited. I downloaded his license plate and car model — a huge fucking Mercedes, that’s how corrupt he is. A Jew driving a Benz? So I park near his estate and wait.”
Billy Joel’s classical recording starts playing.
“You park on the side of the road in Greenwich,” Alvin says, “and no one bothers you? I’d think–“
“–Within ten minutes the Greenwich police show up. They see the uniform, I flash the badge–NYPD carries a lot of weight– and here’s my captain’s number if you want to call, and they say, ‘okay’. Around four the Mercedes drives toward me. Doctor Sackler’s alone, good. I follow him towards the Merritt, and in a woodsy stretch I flip on the siren and pull him over.”
“Happy to see you?”
“De-lighted . . . I knock on the smug bastard’s window. He doesn’t immediately respond, so I give his window a nice whack with my flashlight. Bang. He starts right in: ‘You know who I am’. . . Yeah, I know who you are. You’re the fuck who killed my son! I have the good doctor step out and—”
–Alvin raises a hand, stopping the monologue: “You didn’t do anything, did you?”
“What can you do to someone who killed so many? He’s already dead, isn’t he? Marty, please some scripture support.”
“Leviticus: Whoever takes a human life is surely dead.”
“There you go– –Oh, lookee here.”
Phil sets down the overcooked potato skins.
“You bake those in a kiln?” Alvin asks. “We should get ‘em carbon dated.”
After picking at the cremated appetizer, the three fathers gather their coats and step outside. The heavy rain cleaned the air, and they smell the ocean.
Bill approaches a Plymouth Gran Fury; the decals have been removed, but it’s unmistakably an old NYPD cruiser. Bill’s uniform hangs in the back.
“They must’ve loved that in Greenwich,” Marty says. “Surprised they didn’t make you park in Hartford.”
Bill pats the relic, gets in, and starts the car.
“Good luck getting home,” Alvin yells over the misfiring engine.
Bill leaves the parking lot, exposing the dry, lighter colored asphalt underneath the Plymouth.
“Alvin,” Marty says, pointing, “that oil?”
In the lighter asphalt rectangle is a new puddle of dark, reddish liquid that dripped out of the Plymouth.
“Oil’s darker,” Alvin says. “And it leaks out of the engine, not the trunk. It looks like–”
Mary Carroll’s front door opens and they hear “Piano Man”.
“Must’ve had a leaky bottle of it in the trunk.”
Marty pats Alvin’s shoulder. The fathers walk silently to their cars and head home.
Jerry Cronin won EMMYS, awards from the academy of American Poets, and cowrote a song that reached #5 on the alt-country charts.