A Bagel Never Jumped into My Mouth

Posted in Allen Zadoff, Junk 10: Winter 2013 with tags , , , , , , , on January 15, 2013 by Tim Elhajj

8 Hours to a New You!

by Allen Zadoff

One day in 1995, I was walking toward a McDonald’s on Eighth Street in New York’s West Village. My plan had been to buy healthy food at the grocery store and make myself a nice lunch, but the moment I stepped onto the street, like so many times before, my good intentions were tossed out the window for the siren song of fast food. I started to cry as I walked, knowing I was about to do the thing I didn’t want to do, the thing that had been hurting me all my life. Now at more than 350 pounds, this thing was getting near killing me.

Suddenly, I stopped in midstride and turned back toward Washington Square Park. I’d never walked away from a binge before, and I had no idea why I was doing it then. Maybe I wasn’t really walking away. Maybe I was going to hijack a pretzel cart. I couldn’t be sure.

Five minutes later, I found myself sitting on a bench near New York University, and there was not a pretzel in the vicinity.

It was lunchtime on a warm summer day, and the park was filled with people. Businessmen ate sandwiches from brown paper bags. A line of students bought hot dogs and sodas from a food vendor. A young, good-looking couple shared deep kisses on the grass, while a tattooed man with a pit bull watched them out of the corner of his eye. The park seemed a microcosm of the world, and even in my despair I could see the world was filled with love, joy, and human interaction. Food was a part of it, but no more than a small part.

Did I really live in the same world? The world of the park was rich, yet my own was desolate. Food had become my entire life. I felt doomed to be forever separate from those around me—hiding, eating, growing fatter. Other people lived life and celebrated it, but my sole purpose had become the accumulation of pain-filled, highly caloric days.

Sitting and watching the students go by, longing to be a part of life rather than separate from it, I was struck with an intense sense of déjà vu. I had been here before. In fact, I’d spent my life here.

At ten years old, I’d sat on a hill at summer camp, watching other kids play in the lake because I felt fat and was afraid to be seen jiggling in a bathing suit.

At fifteen, I’d sat on the bench at a school dance, watching other people dance because I thought I was too fat to dance.

At twenty, I’d skipped my college graduation because I didn’t want to be seen in public at 320 pounds— ironic, given that a graduation gown was about the only thing that would have fit me at the time. I’d stayed home instead, unplugged my phone, and spent the afternoon listening to the sounds of horns honking and music blaring as people drove to postgraduation parties all over the neighborhood.

At twenty-five, I’d walked the streets of New York with food hidden in my backpack, racing back to my apartment so I could again be in my personal Bermuda Triangle–sofa, kitchen, and bathroom.

Now at twenty-eight, I was on a bench in the park, seeing it all again—but for the first time in perspective. Nothing had changed in my life except the locations where I ate. Nothing was going to change.

I looked at my life at that moment, and I saw it was in ruins. I was an emotional basket case, my social life destroyed, my spirit all but crushed. Overeating had stolen my life, but it had happened so gradually, I’d barely noticed.

Suddenly, it all seemed clear. I’d spent my life attacking my weight problem head-on, assaulting it with willpower. I knew I had to try something different, or I would fail again. I stood up from the bench, and I did something I’d never done before: I started to look for help.

But first, I went to McDonald’s and ate lunch. Let’s face it—twenty-eight years of overeating doesn’t evaporate in a second.

I desperately wanted to lose weight, but I knew a diet plan was not the kind of help I needed. After all, I’d sought help from doctors, dietitians, and nutritionists for years, and they hadn’t been able to help me get well. Instead of jumping on the next diet, I had to find a way to heal whatever was broken inside me. Not knowing where to begin, I called my first girlfriend, Julia, and, trying to act casual but with a trembling voice, I asked if she would help me find a therapist who specialized in eating disorders. I didn’t know what an eating disorder was exactly, but I had a growing suspicion that I had one.

This was 1995, and the world was a little different. There was no talk of an obesity epidemic, no TV shows about super-sized people, no mayoral initiatives regarding healthy food. There was me, fat and seemingly alone, asking Julia for help. Asking for help for the first time.

“Of course I’ll help you,” Julia said, and in that second, it felt like 150 pounds were lifted from my body and my mind.

This was the first step in a long journey that led to my recovery from overeating.

It was only much later that I was able to look back at that moment in the park with a deep sense of awe. How could I, in the midst of a binge, still half-drunk from a breakfast Danish the size of a bedroom pillow, have had such a profound awareness about my life? What force could have overcome, even for the briefest of moments, the habits that had entrenched themselves in my life for twenty-eight years?

If you’re thinking I found God, you’re wrong. I was far too skeptical for such a belief at the time. First, I found a kind of truth I’d never known before. Food, which had been a very powerful substance in my life, had no real power over me. A bagel never jumped into my mouth. A muffin never tackled me in the grocery store, pried my jaws open, and forced itself down my throat. A pizza never called me in the middle of the night and said, “Get over here. I miss you.”

I put the food in my own mouth. The food itself had no actual power, but the disease of overeating was very powerful indeed. If I was going to get better, I needed a way to overcome this seemingly gargantuan force.

You might say that desperation made me open-minded in a way I’d never been before. I stopped battling my food problem alone, and I joined forces with others. It was the best decision I ever made.

Over time, I became open-minded about spiritual matters. I started to believe there might be a power greater than the greatest thing in my life, my hunger for food. This power, whatever it was, first led me to the park bench; then to Julia; then to my first therapist, Zimmer; and eventually to people who were like me and knew how to help me recover from a disease I didn’t even know was a disease.

A close friend says that the idea of God is too abstract for her, and in order to have a spiritual experience, she needed to find “a God with skin.” For her, God only speaks through people. It’s by opening herself to the love and ideas of others that she’s able to access a power that keeps her from hurting herself with food.

Another overeater friend has her own unique definition of God. She says that God is the three-second pause between the desire to eat and the physical act of putting food in her mouth. That pause did not exist for her when she was overeating, but she has access to it today. In those three seconds, her hand no longer goes immediately to her mouth. That’s all the evidence she needs of a higher power.

My own idea of God changes from day to day, varying from the abstract to the human, to the ridiculous, to the divine. I’ve found it really doesn’t matter what I believe. At least, a specific belief is not required in order to recover from the disease of overeating.

Some belief, however, has been necessary for me to eat normally day after day. The disease of overeating was such a powerful force in my life that I simply could not fight it on my own. My utter defeat led me to explore an area where I was previously skeptical—more than skeptical.

When I began to believe there might be a power greater than my need to overeat–whether it was a group of people, a set of ideas, a God, or love—I suddenly found the strength to eat normally. But just for Wednesday.

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Passages

Posted in Fiona Helmsley, Junk 9: Fall 2012 with tags , , , on November 15, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

by Fiona Helmsley

We were each other’s first drug-addled relationship. He was tortured, I was callous. His pet name for me, when we could laugh about it, was Fiunkie. We came together at a pivotal time in both our lives.

After high school, his mom wanted him to move out of the trailer she had raised him in. She said space was getting tight, and it was time he flew the coop. The trailer had sloping floors, and holes you could fall through if you didn’t know where to step. It reminded me of a trunk with little compartments that I had played with as a young girl in my grandmother’s attic. It seemed to me that this boy had grown up in a trunk. Early in our relationship, I gave him crabs after having sex with a boy in a coffee shop bathroom and convinced him that he had given them to me from something he picked up inside the trailer.

My mother loved him. She thought he’d be a good influence on me, and agreed to let him move in. Later, she would tell me she never knew he was my boyfriend, and always believed we were just good friends.

She had reason to think he was not my boyfriend.

The world was a very different place from the world I’d known just the year before. In this new world, every boy I wanted to fuck wanted to fuck me. I could not resist these sparkling riches. I had never been the girl who inspired strong physical desire; I had always been her funny friend.

Our relationship quickly devolved into psychodrama.

Which is not to say we did not have our moments of bliss, of borderline, relative normalcy. We travelled across the country, broadcast a public access show, formed a few one off, one- night punk rock bands. Two movies I wrote and he directed were on video compilations by Miranda July. We made ‘zines and were prolific creative partners. But something hungered inside of me that could only be fed by boys and by drugs.

He didn’t do heroin, and I believe, initially, this aspect of my lifestyle intrigued him. It filled in some blanks. His father had been a heroin addict who had died from drug-related illness when he was fifteen. He had never known his father, and his father’s parents hid from him when they saw him in the supermarket. All he had of his dad’s, besides what he saw when he looked in the mirror, was a small box-style television set that his mother went out of her way to tell him had come from a pawn shop. This small gift lent itself naturally to the creative passion of his life. He was obsessed with film and used the small television set to edit his low-budget movies from 8mm to VHS. He had never lived with his father nor experienced the intricacies of his addiction first-hand, but his father’s absence could only permeate every aspect of his life.

By not being there, you are. Sometimes even more so.

Your first druggy relationship is a rite of passage. A learning experience with a curve. After that one, the next one, if there is a next one, will be a decision. You will know just what you are getting into.

At first, it was about catching me in lies. If he could just get me to admit to them, get me to acknowledge that I was found out, then I would have to stop. The shame of being caught could only stop me dead in my tracks. When I wouldn’t give up anything, he started following me. I could no longer deny, deny, deny when he had seen with his own eyes. One luminous spring afternoon, I was riding shotgun in a friend’s car on our way to go cop heroin in East Haven, when I looked over to the next lane of traffic and saw him in the car next to ours, waving. He had followed us for over thirty minutes just for that moment. When trailing me made no difference, he began confronting my friends, an incredibly awkward endeavor, as many of my friends were also his own, and they respected him, as this crazy, backwoods genius, the only one of us still doing anything worthwhile as we all dissolved into liars and thieves. But in addiction, none of that matters. Respect just gets in the way. It’s much easier to reach your goals if you can push it aside. So they lied to his face, and he knew that they were lying, and he became bitter, and isolated. In desperation, he went to my family, but they were distracted and living their lives. My mother had just gotten remarried and deserved to have her first real happiness in years free of the black cloud of my issues. Wasn’t that the real reason she had allowed him to move in anyway, that he would help to protect me from myself? Finally, he would leave. But he really had nowhere else to go, and wherever that was, he took his love for me with him, and always came back. I would measure the seriousness of his threat to go by what he had done with his bags. Had he actually packed them? Was he taking them out to the car? If so, had he taken out his guitar yet, because I knew he’d been stashing twenty-dollar bills behind its broken bridge plate…

One afternoon, I came home from work to change my clothes. My friend Phil would be arriving any minute to pick me up so we could go and cop.

Unexpectedly, he came home.

“Where are you going?” he asked, knowing full well.

“Out for a little while,” I answered, trying to keep it light.

Suddenly, something occurred to him and he ran back to our bedroom. I could hear him moving things around on the other side of the door. He sprang back down the hallway, holding his guitar by its neck, the broken bridge plate hanging loose by its two remaining screws.

“You bitch. Give me back the money that you took.”

He lunged for my bag on the table, but I grabbed it first, grasping it tightly to my chest. He clung to its dangling shoulder strap as a means to yank it from my hands. In the commotion, he caught his leg on the side of a chair and fell to the floor, taking me and the bag down with him.

We had never fought like this before, rolling around, me trying desperately to protect what was his. I just needed to get away from him, to free myself and the bag with his money still inside. Over the acoustics of our scuffle, I could make out the sound of a car coming up the driveway. I was so close, if I could just free myself from the weight of his body holding me there on the floor.

I was able to wiggle free for a moment, but he grabbed me by my legs and pulled me back. We rolled into the living room, close to a hutch my mother had decorated with a silver serving tray and two pewter candlesticks. I heard a car door open in the driveway and reached up, grabbed one of the candlesticks and whacked him in the face.

The world stopped and I closed my eyes. I moved my hand across the floor and felt the bag there, free. I would open my eyes again once I got outside.

Then I heard his voice.

“You fucking bitch!”

And I opened them, to be prepared for whatever happened next.

Blood poured from above his lip. It covered his teeth like a coating of cherry dip on a Dairy Queen sundae.

Outside the house, someone was knocking on the door.

He looked at me, the hurt, the anger, the betrayal so fierce and alive in his bloodied face, and spit his blood all over me.

Then he got up from the floor and went into the bathroom.

Unbelievably, it was not Phil at the door but our friend Travis. Travis probably wanted to cop too, but we hadn’t made any plans.

“What the fuck happened?” Travis asked incredulously, surveying the room: the upended furniture, the blood on the floor, on my face and shirt. The strap from my bag lay loose on the carpet, ripped free from its stitching.

Before I could answer, I again heard the sounds of a car coming up the driveway, this time followed by the familiar honk of a horn.

“Travis,” I said, “You’ll do this for me, won’t you? You’ll take him to the hospital?”

I did not wait for his response. I went to throw my bag over my shoulder, but it no longer had a strap. So I tucked it under my arm, and went out the door.

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Heroin/e

Posted in Cheryl Strayed, Junk 9: Fall 2012 with tags , , , on September 16, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

by Cheryl Strayed

When my mother died, I stripped her naked. Plush round belly and her pale breasts rising above. Her arms were black-and-blue from all the needles going in. Needles with clear liquid and needles that only the nurses had a hold of and other needles gripping constantly into her, held tight with tape to the translucent skin of her hand or the silk skin of her wrist. And not one of those needles trying to save her. I picked her dead hand up. It did not want to be held. Her skin was dry and cracked and stabbed. When she died the nurse took the needle out forever. But I wanted it back, and eventually I would get it.

The day they told us my mother had cancer I was wearing green. Green pants, green shirt, green bow in my hair. My mother had sewn this outfit for me. I didn’t like such a themed look, but I wore it anyway, to the Mayo Clinic, as a penance, an offering, a talisman. We found a vacant wheelchair and I got into it and raced and spun down the hallway. Cancer, at this point, was something we did not have to take seriously. My mother was forty-five. She looked fine, beautiful, I would later think, alive. It was just the two of us, me and mother. There were others too, my stepfather working his job, wondering, my grandparents waiting by the phone, wanting to know if it was true, if perhaps the oncologist in Duluth had been mistaken after all. But now, as before, as it would always be, it was only me and my mother. In the elevator she sat in the wheelchair and reached out to tug at my pants. She rubbed the fabric between her fingers proprietarily. “Perfect,” she said.

I was twenty-two. I believed that if a doctor told you that you were going to die soon, you’d be taken to a room with a gleaming wooden desk. This was not so. My mother sat with her shirt off on top of a table with paper stretched over it. When she moved, the room was on fire with the paper ripping and crinkling beneath her. She wore a pale yellow smock with strings meant to be tied. I could see her soft back, the small shelf of flesh that curved down at her waist. The doctor said she’d be lucky if she lived a year. My mother blinked her wet eyes but did not cry. She sat with her hands folded tightly together and her ankles hooked one to the other. Shackled to herself. She’d asked the doctor if she could continue riding her horse. He then took a pencil in his hand and stood it upright on the edge of the sink and tapped it down on the surface hard. “This is your spine after radiation,” he said. “One jolt and your bones will crumble like a dry cracker.”

First we went to the women’s restroom. Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. We didn’t say a word. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two. I could feel her weight leaning against the door, her hands slapping slowly against it, causing the entire frame of the bathroom stalls to shake. Later we came out to wash our hands and faces, standing side by side in the ladies’ room mirror.

We were sent to the pharmacy to wait. I sat next to my mother in my green pantsuit. There was a big bald boy in an old man’s lap. There was a woman who had an arm that swung wildly from the elbow. She held it stiffly with the other hand, trying to calm it. She waited. We waited. There was a beautiful dark-haired woman who sat in a wheelchair. She wore a purple hat and a handful of diamond rings. We could not take our eyes off her. She spoke in Spanish to the people gathered around her, her family and perhaps her husband. “Do you think she has cancer?” my mother whispered loudly to me. There was a song coming quietly over the speakers. A song without words, but my mother knew the words anyway and sang them softly to herself. “Paper roses, paper roses, oh they’re only paper roses to me,” she sang. She put her hand on mine and said, “I used to listen to that song when I was young. It’s funny to think of that. To think about listening to the same song now. I would’ve never known.” My mother’s name was called then: her prescriptions were ready. “Go get them for me,” she said. “Tell them who you are. Tell them you’re my daughter.”

*

My mother said I could have her jewelry box. She said, “When I am done with it.” She was lying on the bed that my stepfather had made for her, for them, with branches twisting and arching up behind her, leaves and jumping bugs carved discreetly into them. There was a dancing pink girl who lived in the jewelry box. She stood and twirled around to the song that played when you wound it up and opened the box. The song changed as it slowed, became sorrowful and destitute. The girl tottered and then stopped as if it hurt her. She had lips the size of a pinhead painted red and a scratchy pink tutu. When we shut the box she went down into it, stiff as a board, bending at the feet. “I always wonder what the ballerina is thinking,” my mother said dreamily.

When my mother got cancer I’d folded my life down. I was a senior in college in Minneapolis, and I’d convinced my professors to allow me to be in class only two days each week. As soon as those days were over, I drove north to the house in rural Minnesota where I’d grown up, racing home, to my mother. I could not bear to be away from her. Plus, I was needed. My stepfather was with my mother when he could be, when he wasn’t working as a carpenter in an attempt to pay the bills. I cooked food that my mother tried to eat. She’d say: pork chops and stuffed green peppers, cherry cheesecake and chicken with rice, and then holler the recipes out to me from her bed. When I’d finished she’d sit like a prisoner staring down at her steaming plate. “It smells good,” she’d say. “I think I’ll be able to eat it later.” I scrubbed the floors. I took everything from the cupboards and put new paper down. My mother slept and moaned and counted and swallowed her pills, or on good days she sat in a chair and talked to me, she paged through books.

“Put these on for me.” My mother sat up and reached for a pair of socks. It had been only a few weeks since we’d learned of her cancer, but already she could not reach her own feet without great pain. I bent at her feet. She held the ball of socks in her hand. “Here,” she said. I had never put socks onto another person, and it was harder than you might think. They don’t slide over the skin. They go on crooked and you have to work to get them on right. I became frustrated with my mother, as if she were holding her foot in a way that made it impossible for me. She sat back with her body leaning on her hands on the bed, her eyes closed. I could hear her breathing deeply, slowly. “God dammit,” I said. “Help me.” My mother looked down at me, silently.

We didn’t know it then, but this would be the last time she was home. Her movements were slow and thick as she put her coat on, and she held onto the walls and edges of doors as she made her way out of the house. On the drive to the hospital in Duluth she looked out the window. She said, “Look at the snow there on those pines.” She told me to toot my horn when I went past Cindy’s house in Moose Lake. She said, “Be careful of the ice. “It’s black ice.” She held an old plastic milk jug with the top cut off so she could vomit into it during the drive. My mother put one hand up to her ribs, where the cancer lived, and pressed gently. “Wouldn’t that be something, to get into an accident now?”

*

Three years after my mother died I fell in love with a man who had electric blue hair. I’d gone to Portland, Oregon, to visit a friend, seeking respite from the shambles my life had become. I had thought that by then I’d have recovered from the loss of my mother and also that the single act of her death would constitute the only loss. It is perhaps the greatest misperception of the death of a loved one: that it will end there, that death itself will be the largest blow. No one told me that in the wake of that grief other grief’s would ensue. I had recently separated from the husband I loved. My stepfather was no longer a father to me. I was alone in the world and acutely aware of that. I went to Portland for a break.

I’ll call the man with electric blue hair Joe. I met him on his twenty-fourth birthday in a bar called Dot’s. After the bar closed, I went to his apartment and drank sangria with him. In the morning he wanted to know if I’d like some heroin. He lived on a street called Mississippi, in North Portland. There was a whole gathering of people who’d rigged up apartments above what had once been a thriving Rexall drugstore. Within days I lived there with him. In the beginning, for about a week, we smoked it. We made smooth pipes out of aluminum foil and sucked the smoke of burning black tar heroin up into them. “This is called chasing the dragon!” Joe said, and clapped his hands. The first time I smoked heroin it was a hot sunny day in June. I got down on my knees in front of Joe, where he sat on the couch. “More,” I said, and laughed like a child. “More, more, more,” I chanted. I had never cared much for drugs. I’d experimented with each kind once or twice, and drank alcohol with moderation and reserve. Heroin was different. I loved it. It was the first thing that worked. It took away every scrap of hurt that I had inside of me. When I think of heroin now, it is like remembering a person I met and loved intensely. A person I know I must live without.

*

The first time they offered my mother morphine, she said no. “Morphine is what they give to dying people,” she said. “Morphine means there’s no hope.”

We were in the hospital in Duluth. We could not get the pillows right. My mother cried in pain and frustration when the nurses came into the room. The doctor told her that she shouldn’t hold out any longer, that he had to give her morphine. He told her that she was actively dying. He was young, perhaps thirty. He stood next to my mother, a gentle hairy hand slung into his pocket, looking down at her in the bed.

The nurses came one by one and gave her the morphine with a needle. Within a couple of weeks my mother was dead. In those weeks she couldn’t get enough of the drug. She wanted more morphine, more often. The nurses liked to give her as little as they could. One of the nurses was a man, and I could see his penis through his tight white nurse’s trousers. I wanted desperately to pull him into the small bathroom beyond the foot of my mother’s bed and offer myself up to him, to do anything at all if he would help us. And also I wanted to take pleasure from him, to feel the weight of his body against me, to feel his mouth in my hair and hear him say my name to me over and over again, to force him to acknowledge me, to make this matter to him, to crush his heart with mercy for us. I held my closed book in my hand and watched him walk softly into the room in his padded white shoes. My mother asked him for more morphine. She asked for it in a way that I have never heard anyone ask for anything. A mad dog. He did not look at her when she asked him this, but at his wristwatch. He held the same expression on his face regardless of the answer. Sometimes he gave it to her without a word, and sometimes he told her no in a voice as soft as his shoes and his penis in his pants. My mother begged and whimpered then. She cried and her tears fell in the wrong direction, not down over the lush light of her cheeks to the corners of her mouth but away from the edges of her eyes to her ears and into the nest of her hair on the bed.

*

I wanted it and I got it, and the more heroin we got, the stingier we became with it. Perhaps if we snorted it, we thought, we’d get higher on less. And then, of course, the needle. The hypodermic needle, I’d read, was the barrier that kept the masses from heroin. The opposite was true with me. I loved the clean smell of it, the tight clench around my arm, the stab of hurt, the dull badge of ache. It made me think of my mother. It made me think of her, and then that thought would go away into the loveliest bliss. A bliss I had not imagined.

There was a man named Santos whom we called when we wanted heroin. He would make us wait by the telephone for hours, and then he’d call and instruct us to meet him in the parking lot of a Safeway. I sat in the car while Joe took a short drive with Santos in his yellow pinto, and then Joe would calmly get back into the car with me and we’d go home. On some occasions we went to Santos’ house. Once he sat in his front window with a shotgun across his lap. Once he clutched my thigh when Joe left the room and told me that if I came to see him alone he’d give me heroin free. Another time he held his baby daughter, just a month old. I looked at her and smiled and told Santos how beautiful she was, and inside of me I felt the presence of my real life. The woman who I actually was. The kind of woman who knows the beauty of a baby, who will have a baby, who once was a baby.

*

The days of my mother’s death, the morphine days, and those that followed, the heroin days, lasted only weeks, months–but each day was an eternity, one stacked up on the other, a cold clarity inside of a deep haze. And unoccupied as well. Just me and my mother, or the ghost of her, though others surely came and went.

Some days flowers came to my mother’s hospital room, and I set them on the edges of tables and windowsills. Women came too. Women who volunteered for the hospital. Old Catholic women, with hair cut close to the scalp or woven into long braids and pinned to their heads. My mother greeted them as she did the flowers: impervious, unmoved, resolute.

The women thought it would be for the best when my mother died. They sat next to me on the vinyl furniture and told me in low tones about the deaths of their own mothers. Mothers who had died standing at kitchen sinks, in the back seats of cars, in beds lit with candles. And also about the ones who made it. The ones with the will to live. Of tumors vanishing and clean blood and opaque bones. People who fought it, who refused to die. The ones who went and then came back. The survivors. The heroes. The heroines. It would be for the best, they whispered, when it was over. Her life, that is. My mother’s.

People whom I knew came, and I did not recognize them at first. It seemed they all wore strange hats or other disguises during this time, though I’m certain that is not true. They were friends of my mother’s. They couldn’t bear to stay in the room, so instead they left chicken potpies and bread. Scalloped potatoes and blocks of cheddar cheese. By then my mother couldn’t eat half a banana. Couldn’t lick a lick of a Popsicle without retching it back up. They said her name to her, and she said their names back to them, hoarse and confused. She said, “How nice you came.” And she put a wan smile on her face. Her hair was flattened against her head, and I reached to smooth it into place.

*

I asked my mother if she would like for me to read to her. I had two books: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin and The Optimist’s Daughter, by Eudora Welty. These were books we’d read before, books we’d loved. So I started in, but I could not go on. Each word I said erased itself in the air. It was the same when I tried to pray. I prayed fervently, rabidly, to God, any god, to a god I could not identify or find. I prayed to the whole wide universe and thought perhaps God would be in it. I prayed and I faltered. God, I realized, had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God would come later, perhaps, to help me bear it.

*

She taught me to knit, my mother, and I did this in the room while she slept and lived the last while. It occurred to me that she had taught me to knit for this particular occasion. So that I would have a place to put my hands and my eyes. “What are you making?” she asked.

“A scarf.”

“For who?” Her hand pinched the sheet that covered her

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m simply knitting a scarf.” The best part about knitting is the tapping, tapping, tapping of the needles. A sound so silent it is like the language of snakes or rabbits or deer.

*

Eventually the nurses and doctors stopped paying any mind to what my mother said or wanted. They looked to me to decide how much morphine to give her. They said I had a choice: she could be in great pain but fairly conscious, or she could be comfortable but higher than a kite, and usually passed out. Ultimately, it was not up to me. “Promise me one thing,” she said. My mother was not dramatic or concise in her dying. She hadn’t offered a single directive in the past days, and I was desperate for guidance. “That you won’t allow me to be in pain anymore. I’ve had too much pain.”

“Yes,” I said, “yes.”

*

There was using heroin and also not using it. In the mornings when I woke, groggy and drained, I’d stand in front of the mirror and talk to myself. I was shocked by my own life. This was not meant to be, I’d think in the mornings. Stop it, I said. No more. And then I would shower and dress and take a bus downtown to serve people coffee and pancakes. At two in the afternoon I’d take the bus home again with hopefully sixty bucks in my pocket for another score of heroin. This is how it went.

Joe waited for me to get home. He cooked me macaroni and cheese and called Santos. He pulled me into his bed and jumped up when the phone rang. I made him stick the needle into me the first time, and then he taught me how to do it myself. What I loved about Joe is that he didn’t love me, or himself. I loved that he would not only let me but help me destroy myself. I’d never shared that with another person. The dark glory of our united self-destruction had the force of something like love. I get to do this, I thought. I get to waste my life. I felt a terrible power within me. The power of controlling the uncontrollable. Oh, I thought, I get to be junk.

But this was not meant to be. My estranged husband, Paul, called me. He was in town and wanted to see me. The friend I’d come to visit in Portland had told him about Joe and about my using heroin, and in response he immediately drove from Minneapolis to Portland to talk to me. I met him within the hour at our friend’s house. He sat at the table in the kitchen with the branches of a fig tree tapping on the window nearby. He said, “You look, you look . . . different. You seem so, how can I say this–you seem like you aren’t here.” First he put his hands on mine, and we held onto one another, locked hand to hand. I couldn’t explain it to him, the why. And then we fought. He stood up and screamed at me so loudly that I put my hands over my head for cover. His arms gestured madly in the air, at nothing. He clawed at himself and ripped the shirt from his own back and threw it at me. He wanted me to go home with him in an hour. Not for a reunion but to get away, not from Joe but from heroin.

I told Paul I needed to think. I drove back to Joe’s apartment and sat in a lawn chair he kept on the sidewalk outside the building he lived in. Heroin made me dumb, or distant, rather. A thought would form and then evaporate. I couldn’t get a hold of my mind. I sat in the lawn chair on the sidewalk, and a man walked up to me and said his name was Tim. He took my hand and shook it and told me that I could trust him. He asked if I could give him three dollars for diapers, then if he could use my phone, and then if I had change for a five-dollar bill, and on and on in a series of twisting questions and sorry stories that confused and compelled me to stand and pull the last ten dollars I had out of my jeans pocket. He saw the money and took a knife out of his shirt. He held it gently to my chest and said, “Give me that money, sweetheart.”

I packed a few things and called Paul. When he pulled up to the corner where I was waiting, I got into his car. By sunset Portland was long gone. In Montana we checked into a motel to sleep. I held myself in bed, rocking with a headache, a sickness in my gut. Paul brought me water and chocolate and watched television. I sat in the car as we drove across the country, and I felt my real life present but unattainable, as if heroin had taken me entirely from myself. Paul and I fought and cried and shook the car with our fighting. We were monstrous in our cruelty. We talked kindly afterward, shocked at ourselves and each other. We decided that we would get divorced. I hated him and I loved him. He had known my mother. I felt trapped, branded, held, and beloved. Like a daughter. “I didn’t ask you to come to Portland,” I screamed. “You came for your own reasons,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said.

“You love me that much?” I asked. “You came all this way to get me? Why?”

“Because,” he said. “Just because.”

*

I wanted my mother to love me, but more. I wanted her to prove it, to live, to be a heroine. To go to battle and to win. And if she was going to die, I wanted her to tell me, in the end, how I should live without her. Until that point I had wanted just the opposite. I could not bear for her to tell me what to do or how to live. I had wanted to be unknown by her, opaque to her wondering mother eyes.

The last days, my mother was not so much high as down under. When she woke, she’d say, “Oh, oh.” Or she’d let out a sad gulp of air. She’d look at me, and there would be a flash of love. Other times she’d roll back into sleep as if I were not there. Sometimes when my mother woke she did not know where she was. She demanded an enchilada and then some applesauce. She’d say, “That horse darn near stepped on me,” and look around the room for it accusingly. During this time I wanted my mother to say to me that I had been the best daughter in the world. I did not want to want this, but I did, inexplicably, as if I had a great fever that would be could only be cooled by those words. I went so far as to ask her directly, “Have I been the best daughter in the world?” She said yes, I had, of course. But this was not enough. I wanted those words to knit together in my mother’s mind and for them to be delivered, fresh, to me.

I was ravenous for love.

*

One day a woman with a clipboard asked if I’d go with her to the cafeteria. She said that she wanted to talk to me about a donation my mother had made. Her name was Janet and she was dressed in a navy-colored shirt with little white fringes on each shoulder, as if she were the captain of something. Her fingernails were long and red and they clicked together when she moved her hands in certain ways.

When we sat down with two cups of coffee between us, she told me that my mother was an organ donor but that because she had cancer throughout her body they would only take her eyes.

“Her eyes?”

“Well not the whole eye, of course, but parts of the organ.” Janet took her cup up into her hands; one fingernail tapped against it. “We make it a policy to inform people close to the donor. In your mother’s case, upon death, we will need to place ice on her eyes in order to preserve them.” She thought about this for a moment. “This way you will understand what is happening when you see that we must put the bags of ice on her face. The removal is performed within a few hours after her death.” Her fingernails went up to the sides of her face, hovering in midair. “Small incisions will be made at the side of each eye.” Janet showed me this, pointing with her own sharp nails. “The skin will be sutured carefully to disguise signs of this procedure.” She swallowed a sip of coffee and looked at me. “It does not preclude an open-casket viewing.”

*

I dreamed of heroin. I woke in the middle of the night with a wanting so deep I was breathless. I had started seeing a therapist to talk about heroin. She told me that this wanting was normal, that indeed when you use heroin the brain responds by activating pleasure neurons that would normally remain dormant. She said it would take months for them to calm. Until then, they go on aching to be fed. Trying to trick your body into it. I could see them, spindly arms with mouths like flowers, blooming or wilting and then blooming again. “What about pain?” I asked her. “Are there neurons in the brain that come alive only with agony? And if so, how long does it take for them to die, to fold back into themselves and float away?”

*

I saw Joe two more times. I’d kept in touch with him; calling him late at night from Minneapolis, against the advice of my friends. When we talked I could hear the heroin in his voice, making it soft and open. Within a month he was at my door, looking weak and pale. He sat on my couch and shot up and then lurched into my kitchen and bent to vomit into the sink. He wiped his face and smiled. “It’s worth it,” he said, “getting sick. Because you feel so good through it all.” We spent a week in my apartment using the supply of heroin he’d brought with him. I knew I had to end this, and finally I did. He left when I asked him to.

The second time I saw him, a year had passed and I was in Portland for reasons unrelated to him. I used with him without planning to, then woke the next morning full of remorse. We went to the beach for the day. He was no longer the smart, sexy, simpering man I’d fallen for, but a junkie. Joe had scabs on his skin from constant scratching; his bony arms were bruised and punctured. He didn’t care anymore what color his hair was. I sat on the cool sand watching the Pacific Ocean roar in while Joe locked himself in the public restroom to shoot up. I held myself stiff against the desire to join him. The ocean inched nearer and nearer to me with each passing minute. I was both sickened by Joe and compelled. I felt in the presence of a dying man, a young dying man, and I knew that I could never see him again if I wanted to live. And I did.

*

My mother didn’t have time to get skinny. Her death was a relentless onward march. The hero’s journey is one of return, but my mother’s was all forward motion. She was altered but still fleshy when she died, the body of a woman among the living. She had her hair too, brown and brittle and frayed from being in bed for weeks.

From the room where she died I could see the great Lake Superior out her window. The biggest lake in the world, and the coldest. To see it, I had to work. I pressed my face sideways, hard, against the glass, and I’d catch a slice of it going on forever into the horizon. “A room with a view!” my mother exclaimed. “All of my life I’ve waited for a room with a view.”

I arranged the flowers closer into my mother, to the edges of tables, so that she could see them without having to turn her head. Bouquets of pink carnations, yellow roses, daisies, and tiger lilies. Flowers that originated on other continents and were brought here to witness my mother’s dying. She wanted to die sitting up, so I took all the pillows I could get my hands on and made a backrest for her. I wanted to take my mother and prop her in a field of yarrow to die. I covered her with a quilt that I had brought from home, one she had sewn herself out of pieces of our old clothing. “Get that out of here,” she hissed savagely, and then kicked her legs like a swimmer to make it go away.

I watched my mother. It was March, and outside, the sun glinted off the sidewalks and the icy edges of the snow. It was Saint Patrick’s Day and the nurses brought my mother a square block of green Jell-O that sat quivering on the table beside her. It was the last full day of her life, and my mother did not sleep, she did not wake. She held her eyes still and open. They were the bluest thing in the room, perhaps in all of Duluth. Bluer than the lake. They were the color of the sky on the best day of your life.

My mother died fast but not all of a sudden. A slow-burning fire when flames disappear to smoke and then smoke to air. She never once closed her eyes. First they were bitter and then they were bewildered and then they changed again to something else, to a state that I have had, finally, to see as heroic. Blue, blue eyes. Daggers of blue wanting and wanting. To stay, to stay.

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Some Kind of Animal

Posted in James Brown, Junk 8: Summer 2012 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

by James Brown

My obsession with muscle comes to an abrupt and sudden end along a narrow, two-lane mountain highway in the San Bernardino Mountains. Elevation 5,500 feet. Dead of winter. Here I am far removed from the cities and suburban sprawl of the lowlands of Southern California. The night before it snowed lightly and the limbs of the pines bordering the highway are white with frost. It’s a beautiful sight, how the branches shimmer in the morning sun, but the roads are treacherous, slick with black ice, the most dangerous kind because it blends into the asphalt. A shining fine veneer. You can barely see it, if you can see it at all. In years past, I’ve spun out on it and nearly wrecked my car, so I’ve learned to drive carefully. I’m making slow but safe progress when a Dodge Ram suddenly appears in my rearview mirror.

I ignore it.

Soon I look for a place to turn out and let him by, but there is none. As we continue down the highway he edges closer and closer to my bumper until his big front grill fills my back window. My heart begins to pound, and I ease up on the accelerator. That’s when he flips on his high-beams and two sets of fog lamps. Together they are blinding. My face feels hot. My ears ring and then, without further warning, I snap. When he lays on his horn I pull the wheel hard to the left, so that the car spins sideways, blocking both lanes and trapping him. Now I have the son of a bitch, and I don’t care how big he is. I don’t care if he’s a tough guy or a coward.

I jump out of my car. I want blood.

*

At the time of this altercation, I am bench-pressing 350 pounds. I am squatting over 400, and have, according to Paula, no visible neck. At 5’8”, I weigh 195 pounds, nearly all of it muscle, no small achievement for a guy who only ten months earlier topped the scales at a mere 150.

It would be convenient, in terms of a psychological profile, to suggest that my obsession with muscle stems from an inferiority complex related to my short stature. But that would be only partially true, for it is a combination of factors that fuel my passion, among them middle age. At forty-two I feel that I’m losing my edge. I’m not as energetic. I fatigue more easily and my sexual drive isn’t what it used to be. To compound matters, I have, for the better part of my life, strayed as far from the path of physical and mental health as one possibly can without entirely self-destructing. That is to say, I spent the majority of my years on this planet under the influence of various and sundry illicit substances, all of which extracted a heavy toll on my body. When I “bottom out,” as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Cocaine Anonymous—I’ve earned lifetime memberships in them all—I am a pale, gaunt, middle-aged English professor with stick-like arms and a pencil-thin neck.

My goal, other than to stay sober, is to rebuild the body I’d ravaged with booze and dope. At first all I want is to feel and look healthy, maybe tone my body and get my wind back. For the average man, achieving these goals would seem more than enough. After all, most men would kill just to lose their pot bellies, let alone add a couple of inches of muscle to their arms. And under normal circumstances, for the normal person, this is where it would stop. This is where you’re supposed to be happy with the improvements you’ve made and work now only to maintain them.

But I am not a normal person.

I have what in layman terms is called an addictive personality, and what I do, basically, is transfer my addiction to booze and dope to the seemingly healthier obsession of pumping iron.

I work out like a demon two hours a day, five days a week. I eat well. I get eight hours of sleep every night. I subscribe to Muscle & Fitness and Flex magazine. I drink foul-tasting protein shakes and spend a small fortune on body building supplements whose companies make ridiculous claims and promises when in fact their products deliver very little. After six months of intense, grueling workouts, I gain a measly seven pounds.

The solution, I think, is to work out even harder, and so I do. Longer hours. Heavier weights. After a couple of months with this approach, I actually lose several pounds and every day feel drained and worn-out, like I have a perpetual hangover. It’s called over-training, and I later learn that it has the reverse effect on muscle, causing it to weaken rather than grow.

In the beginning I admire the guys with lean, hard bodies, and I want to look like them, but as time passes I find myself intrigued with the more muscular physiques of the hard-core bodybuilders. The wide shoulders and broad chest and steel-hard biceps. The thick legs. The defined, horseshoe shape of the triceps. The freaky veins popping out of the forearms and the stripped pattern of striated muscle. I like the idea of power. I like the idea of strength. This is also around the time when I notice that these bigger guys don’t work out as hard as me and yet they make more gains. Where they’re benching 300 or 400 pounds, I’m stuck at 200, and have been for months. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to break past that 200 mark, and I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. Am I over the hill at forty-two? Do I lack testosterone? Is it the curse of bad genes? I have no answers, but over the course of the next several weeks I make friends with one of these bigger guys. For reasons of privacy, I won’t divulge his real name, though I will say that among the gym rats he is endearingly referred to as Oak Junior, named after his idol, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the original Oak and Governor of this Golden State. One morning he asks me to spot him on the bench press. He has eight plates on the bar for a total weight of 405 pounds. This is a warm-up.

“I’m going for eight reps,” he says.

Without breaking a sweat, he knocks them off. I shake my head in amazement. Then I ask him, point-blank, how he does it. How he got so strong, so big. Oak Junior laughs. He has two words for me.

“The Juice.”

“What?”

“D-Bol, man,” he says. “The Big E. Deca. Winnie-V. Tes-C.” He looks me up and down and smiles. “No offense, but a few years ago I was a skinny little geek like you.”

I ignore the insult.

What peaks my interest are those strange-sounding names. I have no idea what they mean, but I’ll find out soon enough when Oak Junior and I make a run to Mexico. The drive takes about two hours from my home in the mountains, down through the flatlands and across the desert to the cool breeze blowing off the coast of San Diego. From here it’s only a couple of miles to the border and another to the main drag, Revolución Boulevard, in Tijuana. The streets are lined with pharmacies, and tourist shops offering leather vests, jackets, cheap jewelry, and switchblades. I follow Oak Junior through the crowded sidewalks, down another block, off the beaten path and into an animal supply and feed store.

“What’re we doing here?” I ask.

But Oak Junior ignores me. In a place like this, I’d expect to find Mexican farmers and ranchers, and there are two or three, but the others are all Americans—two teenagers, one young woman with abnormally large biceps, and three clean-cut burly guys. Cops, I think. In Southern California, it’s rumored that many are on the Juice.

The store smells of alfalfa and barnyard manure. Behind us, stacked on top of each other, are cages with parakeets, puppies, rabbits, and ducks, and secured in a glass case nearby are the accouterments of rooster fighting—the shiny, chromed spikes, razors, and gaffs that attach to the leg of the gamecock. And behind the counter, directly ahead of us, are shelves and shelves of little bottles and boxes. Oak Junior points to one and the clerk passes it to him.

“This is good shit,” he says to me.

But it has the picture of an animal on the label. I look more closely.

“That’s a dog,” I say.

He shrugs and turns the box over. On that side it has the picture of a bull.

“Dog, bull, what’s the difference? It all works the same.”

The substance is straight, unadulterated testosterone. We buy that and more, and later on the ride back home I learn, for instance, that the Big E stands for Equipoise, a steroid given to race horses, as is Winnie-V, chemically known as Stanazol. And D-Bol, a longtime staple of the athletic community, is equally popular in the cattle industry. All of these drugs are injected with a syringe. All of these drugs are “stacked”— administered together in various dosages and combinations, making for a potent steroid cocktail.

In the days to come I learn when and where to best stick myself with the needle: it’s typically done on a weekly basis, shooting directly into a muscle, the least painful area being the buttocks. Most importantly, Oak Junior schools me on the host of other drugs you need to counter the potential side-effects of steroid use. For testicle shrinkage, you take the fertility drug, Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, or simply HCG, which is manufactured from the urine of pregnant women. To combat gynecomastia, otherwise known in body building circles as “bitch tits,” you need Clomid, another fertility drug used to induce ovulation in women. For water retention, a common side effect of testosterone usage, you take the powerful diuretic Lasix, normally prescribed for edema and high blood pressure.

In six months, armed with this knowledge, I’m benching 300 and have gained twenty-five pounds. My medium-sized shirts no longer fit. I can’t get into my regular 501s anymore and have to buy relaxed-fit. As for my boxers, they go into the rag pile, too, because I can’t get them around my thighs without cutting off the circulation.

Paula feels compelled to enlighten me one evening. We are stretched out in bed, having just made love for the second time in the last hour or so. For sex drive, certain steroids, especially injectable testosterone, are superior to the fleeting effects of Viagra and its rivals. “Look at your legs,” she says.

“What about them?”

She makes a face.

“It’s like they’re growing tumors.”

She is referring to my vastus lateralis, that is to say the outer thigh muscle, which I am quite proud of having developed.

“And your shoulders too. You better stop taking that stuff. Seriously,” she says, “you’re starting to look like some kind of animal.”

I draw my hand along her arm. I let it slide down between her legs and she pushes me away.

“Enough is enough,” she says. “Leave me alone. It isn’t fun anymore.”

Then she rolls out of bed and begins to dress. I reluctantly do the same, and as I’m slipping into my relaxed-fit Levis I glance at myself in the dresser mirror. The comment she’d made seems far-fetched. I take pride in those tumors in my legs. I take pride in the width and girth of my shoulders and how each muscle—the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoid—are nicely defined. I admire the line of my traps, how they compliment my lats and form a clear triangle of muscle through the middle of my back. In the mirror, to my eyes, I see something completely different than my fiancée: to her I’m overblown and muscle-bound, to me I look cut and solid, anything but overbuilt.

So for the next few months I continue my quest for more muscle, for that rock-solid physique, and to this end I increase the length and intensity of my workouts. I increase the dosages of steroids. And because protein is the building block for muscle, I increase my diet too. I eat like a pig. Each morning, I consume a dozen egg whites and wash them down with a quart of milk. At lunch, I devour two or three chicken or tuna sandwiches and put away another quart of milk. For dinner, more often than not, I eat blood rare steaks.

I grow.

Like a bull, I think. Big. Strong.

Now I wear an extra-large T-shirt. The once loose, relaxed-fit Levis are no longer loose or relaxed. Instead, they are skintight, and the inside of my thighs rub together when I walk. Evidently, at least to others, I’ve undergone a radical physical mutation, but less noticeably, at least to myself, I experience another, more insidious sort of metamorphosis.

With the increased energy level from the steroids, almost like a speed high, I sleep on average about four to five hours a night. Of course that sort of schedule eventually takes a toll on my moods which, given my psychological condition, are not altogether stable in the first place, and I often find myself irritated by things that never used to bother me before.

I’m short with friends.

I’m short with colleagues, and in the classroom, when I’m teaching, I become increasingly less patient with my students. My temper is not, as they say, at a slow boil: one second I can be perfectly calm, and then, in the next, I might lose it. Once, while I’m reading the newspaper, I come across an article that upsets me, something to do with politics, and I throw the paper on the floor and begin stomping on it, jumping up and down when Paula happens into the room.

“What’re you doing?”

“Nothing,” I say sheepishly.

“Look at you,” she says. “Your face is all red. You’re sweating.”

“I’m just a little upset.”

“Jim,” she says, “it’s not normal to get that crazy over the newspaper. Don’t you see what those steroids are doing to you?”

“I’m fine.”

“All you’ve done is switched one drug for another.”

“Steroids aren’t drugs,” I say. “I know my drugs and they’re not drugs.”

“Go ahead, keep lying to yourself. Keep letting those steroids make you rage like a lunatic.”

Of course, like any good alcoholic or addict, I’m well practiced in the art of denial, and I can’t for the life of me see how steroids do anything except build muscle. I do concede, however, that they can on occasion increase aggressiveness. But now that it’s been pointed out to me, and if I make a concerted effort to remain conscious of it, I feel I’m perfectly capable of keeping my temper in check. So as far as I’m concerned, Paula is blowing this entire incident totally out of proportion.

“Relax,” I tell her. “I have everything under control.”

*

Under normal circumstances, I rarely act on my hostile impulses. I may get mad, even furious, and on occasion justifiably so, but my better judgment in such matters typically prevails. Unfortunately the incident along that narrow, two-lane mountain road is not one of these times. Imbued with a sense of invincibility, my anger fueled by steroids, I approach the Dodge Ram and yank open the door.

Techno music blasts from inside. He’s just a kid, nineteen at most. He throws his hands up in front of his face.

“Hey, take it easy,” he says. “I didn’t mean nothing, man.”

I grab him around the throat with one hand. He has on a baseball cap turned backwards and it falls off. I look him hard in the eyes.

“Stay off my ass,” I say.

The kid doesn’t move, not even to try and break away. It might’ve ended there, and I wish it had. But when I let him go, as I start back to my car, he opens his fool mouth.

“Fuck you,” he says.

I turn around.

“What’d you say?”

“You heard me, asshole.”

In a matter of seconds, he’s gone from being fearful to defiant, and it’s a big mistake, one that costs us both. On this lonely road dusted with snow, in a place of quiet and peace, I walk back to his truck. I reach for his neck again, only this time he pulls away and takes a swing at me. The blow glances off my arm, and I grab him by the collar and yank him out of the truck. His shirt rips and he falls to the ground, and as he’s getting to his feet I hit him good on the side of the head, square in the temple, then again in the nose. I feel the cartilage give under my fist and then there is blood. Lots of it. All down the front of his bright white T-shirt.

The fight could’ve gone on. I could’ve hurt him worse, and I wanted to, if not for this voice in my head telling me no, stop, enough. The last thing I remember about that kid are his eyes, bulging with terror. After that, it gets sketchy. I don’t remember, for instance, walking back to my car. I don’t remember driving off. It’s called a “red-out,” like the alcoholic “black-out,” where there’s a lapse in memory. But there’s no forgetting what happened about five minutes later: just a few miles up the road the Highway Patrol pulls me over, and the next thing I know my hands are flat on the roof of his cruiser. He’s patting me down.

“But it was self-defense,” I lie.

As I try to talk my way out of this mess I hear my fiancée’s voice in the back of my mind. I hear her, finally, loud and clear. I am some kind of animal, rabid and enraged. Ahead the road glistens, the sun melting away the dangerous shining veneer of black ice.

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The Point of Failure

Posted in Alan Schulte, Junk 7: Spring 2012 with tags , , , , , on April 16, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

by  Alan Schulte

I sit low in the swivel chair, chin to chest, stabbing deep, black circles into the yellow legal pad. I watch out of the corner of my eye as the judge nods sympathetically at my father’s long explanation of the events leading up to this moment. Judge Stevens, a thin, pale man with a permanent look of disinterest carved into the deep folds of his brow, is the last person I expected to see today. He is not part of the plan.

I am twenty-seven years old and I’ve spent the last six months in county jail waiting for this day, my opportunity to strike a plea deal that would keep me out of prison, at least for the time being. My mother sits directly behind me on the other side of a low partition. The rest of the seats remain empty. There is no one left in my corner. My public defender arranged, in advance, a guilty plea in exchange for six months time-served and one year in a “diversion” program, a sort-of strict probation for non-violent offenders, in lieu of the two-to-four year sentence the state prosecutor is pushing for.

Today I was scheduled to see Judge Warner. Liberal-minded in the aspects of “rehabilitation” rather than “punishment,” Warner is revered within the razor-wire walls of the county farm for doling out second chances to drunks, potheads, tweakers, and junkies. This is actually my fourth (or, perhaps fifth) chance but I was accepted anyway, following a battery of psychological evaluations, and deemed a “good candidate for treatment and rehabilitation.” I’m not sure what constitutes a “poor candidate” but I went with it, twitching through the formalities, anxiously awaiting Judge Warner and his decision that would finally allow me to be released from the custody of the State and walk out of here a free man.

All around me there were small groups, mini-conferences taking place in hushed tones, discussing strategies and arranging plea deals. My public defender was huddled just to the side of the clerk’s desk with two other men in dark suits. She drew big circles in the air, and then waved her arms as if to erase the previous circle only to draw another, equally large circle. She turned to face me, biting her lower lip, walking with a stiff, put-on casualness that has become her tell that things are not going as planned. She slid awkwardly in the chair next to me, and rolled close, leaning in, tucking a blonde strand behind her ear and releasing a big sigh that told the story.

“Warner is out,” she said, speaking slowly, in whispers but not making eye contact. Her name is Maggie Lawson, and I waited as she studied the marks on the pad in front of me for some jurisprudence, as if she might find a solution there. I realized that my fate was in the hands of this wide-eyed public defender, a year and a half out of law school. She had been working hard for the past six months to line up this plea deal. We have invested everything into this arrangement and the only thing left to seal the deal was Judge Warner’s consent. Without him, we had nothing. She looked like she was going to cry. In the silence I sensed that she wanted to say I’m sorry. She didn’t.

A hush fell over the cavernous hall and the small groups of dark-suited men dispersed as we were called to order and instructed to rise. I shifted in my ill-fitted orange jumpsuit, the thick canvas rubbing hard against my body. My legs were weak. I stood, holding on to the edge of the long table and watching Judge Stevens as he appeared through a hidden panel in the wall, his black gown whipping behind his long gangling strides to the tall, gray paneled bench, rapping his gavel in earnest, calling the room to order in short, quick busts. My stomach turned.

Maggie, red faced, jumped out of her seat, stammering, stalling. Motion to postpone, denied.

Time began to speed up and blur into the grey paneling as I watched my life circling around the room, my story of self-destruction told and retold, every aspect examined and scrutinized.

*

It is my father’s voice that I hear first. It is familiar, but different. He speaks in low, soft tones, pausing several times to clear his throat, choking down the lump that grows there, then resuming in an uncharacteristic staccato. I take my head out of my hands for a moment to look across the stale courtroom and into the pale florescent light, cast from the round cylinders overhead, exposing every feature, the long creases and tired lines of his face. We haven’t spoken in years. He looks different, tired. This long battle has worn him down. He does not look at me.

He stands to read his statement, removing his glasses from his breast pocket and placing them on his face, gently sliding the wire frame snug to the bridge of his nose. I notice a few more sprouts of gray around his temples, his receding hairline, and I realize how long it has been since we were in the same room together.

His movements are slow, methodical as he pulls a paper from his shirt pocket, unfolds it and clears his throat once more before beginning to read.  The paper is for show, to give his nervous hands something to do. He knows very well what needs to be said: the words, the sentences that will reveal a tragic life that has long been careening out of control.

He is asked to identify his son. It takes a moment before I realize that they are talking about me. My chest tightens as he raises his head from the paper. It’s the first time in two years I have looked him in the eye. My face burns.

He points in my direction. His words, though true, make me sick.

“I love my son” is how it begins, and ends.

There were other words, too, but somehow far less important.

But, in that moment, I am transported back through the events of my past, considering our lives, together and apart. That word: Love. I know now that it is all I ever wanted: his love. And it is here, in this cold hall of justice that I am hearing the word as if for the first time.

I want to understand what he is saying and how he feels. I want to feel too. I want to escape. But I don’t understand the difference between the two.

This is how I ended up here.

In this moment, beneath the weight of my own cold reality, my arms explode in tiny bumps, chicken skin, and they begin to itch and, although it has been six long months since I’ve messed with it, I can taste the Junk, the dirty water dripping bitter down the back of my throat. And just like that, the cravings begin again and there is no room for love: his, or anyone else’s.

It is my disease and still today it continues to rip us further apart.

He folds the small slip of paper and places it gently in his pocket, scanning the floor, choking down the lump.

“Please, your honor” he says, “my son needs help. If you let him go, he will die.”

*

I remember sitting in Mrs. Miller’s class. It was January, 1986. Sixth grade. We had gathered in front of the television, poised to witness history in the making. It was the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, an epic event in its own right, but our purpose that day was to watch as Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire became the first civilian and educator to fly into space. A dream realized.

After months of delays and rescheduled launch dates, all eyes were glued to the television as the countdown began. Teachers and students from other classrooms had joined us, circled around the small screen, ready to take part in something memorable, something, we were told, that we would share with our children and our children’s children.

As the countdown continued we watched as both boosters and the main engine fired, sending bright orange flames out of the base of the craft. Large plumes of exhaust spread out and around the launch pad as the count continued down to one, pushing nearly eight million pounds of vertical thrust.

Liftoff.

Cheers erupted from the television, from all around the classroom as the shuttle rose into the air, defying gravity, slowly rotating onto its back, propelling Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts at full throttle, over two thousand feet per second, into the upper atmosphere. There was a moment of shared exuberance and joy and tears of triumph for teachers and children everywhere.

It was seventy-three seconds into the launch when I, the class, the world, watched as the Challenger broke apart beneath a cloud of smoke, sending fragments in all directions. There were no words. The commentator said nothing. Ground control said nothing. We watched as the thin trail of smoke snaked its way through the sky, streamers of smoldering debris falling around it. It was silent for ten long seconds as everyone processed what was happening.

A static laden voice from the television announced what we had all feared. “Obviously a major malfunction.”

The real tragedy took place long before that cold day in January. The explosion, the disintegration of the entire vehicle, was the result of a faulty O-ring in the right solid rocket booster that caused a breach in the joint that allowed pressurized hot gas to escape the cell which came in contact with the external fuel tank causing structural failure and allowing external pressure and aerodynamic forces to rip apart the orbiter: a series of events leading back to a ¼ inch thick rubber gasket.

Following nearly a three-year investigation, it was discovered that NASA had known about the “potentially catastrophic failure” in the O-ring design since 1977 but failed to address it properly, disregarding warnings from engineers.  A tiny flaw in this small, seemingly insignificant piece—a mistake made years earlier, followed by countless missed opportunities to correct the problem—lead to a series of breakdowns in the system, resulting in fatal consequences.

*

A chubby lady in an ill-fitted, mustard colored pants suit stands to read the indictment.

“At the Superior Court, holden at Dover, within and for the County of Strafford…”

I have heard these words before. This is not the first time. I have read them, alone, late at night in my cramped cell, dodging shadows, attempting to reconstruct the past, to play back the old decomposing film that tells the story that isolates that moment, that first mistake that lead me down the path that has brought me here.

“The Grand Jurors for the State of New Hampshire…”

I look up to watch the judge, slouching on his elbow, his swollen, arthritic knuckles pressed against his pasty cheek. He is bored with the whole thing, bored with me and my pitiful story. I imagine, as he sits there, high above us all, he’s playing through a round of golf in his mind: three under on the back nine, forty miles from here. Perhaps he’s considering his game, his last hole, his last stroke, his last mistake.

The mulligan.

He will go back, replaying it over and over in his mind, considering how he could have played it differently; though, the mistake rarely occurs at the point of failure. It is a long process of tiny maladjustments, misalignments, a series of microscopic miscalculations that forever alter the course of events to follow.

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A Reason to Smile

Posted in Alan Kaufman, Junk 6: Winter 2012 with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

by Alan Kaufman

“Thank you, fucking God,” I said, as I slid to a sit on the bus station floor.

In the busy station, desperate-looking travelers rushed to gates, driven by echoing loudspeakers. Bus terminals are not like airports or train depots, which tend to draw a moneyed clientele. Greyhound is the celestial ferry of the underclass, chariot of the poor. Those who ride the dog often don’t look well. But even among these, I stood out as a sorry case. Only by the power of my newly awakened spirit and the tickled humor of my smile could I claim a place among them. For I was arisen not from the dead but from the undead, and if some might question whether I even existed at all, well, without a drink in my hand, I wasn’t so sure myself.

And yet I felt a sense of newfound freedom. Previously, I had thought my life’s purpose was to write great literature and champion causes. Now I understood: my first duty was to live. The knife was at my throat. Here was proof of life: I had tried so hard to die. And the blade was not in any other hand but mine, turned on me. So I must do anything not to drink. I had my work cut out.

I supposed that now I knew enough, had faith enough, to make it safely overland for three days aboard the bus, a fast-moving silver bullet on wheels, painted on both sides with the emblem of a dog running for its life.

I felt so relieved not to have a hangover. And though, through sober eyes, the world looked severely businesslike, frantic, joyless even, now and then inside I felt flashes of causeless happiness, cosmic winks, that brought smiles to my lips. In the meetings, I had been promised that my shaking hands would soon be still. So, here in the terminal, there was nothing to do now but sit back with shaking hands and smoke a cigarette.

An old black woman in a wrinkled dress came along, dragging a garbage bag identical to mine. Hers, filled to bursting, seemed to weigh a ton. Hauling it strained the sinews of her neck. She stopped about ten feet away, slid to a sit against my wall. Her feet were shod in Carolina work boots, untied laces trailing on the ground, and hair done up in little braids tied with colored rubber bands.

She searched the floor around her feet and, with a pleasure that I well knew from gutter days, found a smoke and lit up, inhaled, exhaled, and spoke to herself. There is a kind of conversation with yourself that is sane and another sort that is with imaginaries—hers was the latter. When she noticed me looking her way, she gazed back with the disarming impudence of a child—mad for sure, but sweetly so. Older, too, than I imagined. Must have been in her late seventies, early eighties, perhaps. What a world, I thought, to leave one like her homeless and hungry. What social order could allow this? What political system supports this? What economic theories justify this? Greed and indifference permit the old and infirm to die neglected. Being sober did not mean that I should ever make accommodation with a world that says: She is none of our affair.

And, yet, here I was too—an Ivy league grad schooler with a published book, a writer, former museum program director, fundraising wheeler-dealer, Israeli soldier—and had as little as she, maybe less. We shared the same dirty bus terminal floor.

The old woman was crazy, but so was I, with my long secret history of hearing voices, PTSD delusions, the stabbing phobia—all undocumented because I was good at hiding. But, then, for twenty-two years, in full view of myself, I’d poured down my own throat a killing substance that drove me to ever-worsening depths of madness. I had, then, no cause to pity her. We were the same. Each hanging on by our fingernails. And realizing this, the strangest thing happened. I felt a sudden sense of warmth hatch and spread through me and heard a small faint whisper of a voiceless voice say: “Just smile.” Which I did, straight back at her; and in her face appeared the warmest, prettiest beaming little girl. And there we sat, on the terminal floor, two broken children, smiling at each other.

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When You Wake Up

Posted in Aimee E. Millwood, Junk 6: Winter 2012 with tags , , , , on January 12, 2012 by Tim Elhajj

by Aimee E. Millwood

The first thing that hits you is a rush of fear as you realize you have no idea where you are or how you got there. This lost fumbling confusion is all too familiar. Countless mornings you have woken up hung over—head pounding, throat parched—and you have struggled through this very same panic, this very same mental reconstruction as you try to piece together the events of the night before.

But this is different. This doesn’t feel like those other mornings. This time, the movie replaying the night before doesn’t slowly start to materialize in your head.  This time, your mind is at a standstill. You’re swimming through waves of painkillers and sedatives, trying to work your way through the fog. Everything still seems like a dream, like you haven’t yet woken up.

You scan the room and all you see are walls so white the edges blur together in an infinite, all encompassing cave that seems to trap you, swallow you up. There are needles and tubes in your arms, your chest, all across your body, like needles poking into a voodoo doll. The sharp antiseptic scent of a doctor’s office tells you that you must be in a hospital, but you don’t know where, or what got you here. Now that you think about it, you don’t even remember who you are.

And then, your eyes settle on the one recognizable thing in the room—Michael. Michael with his wispy blonde hair, Michael with his clear blue eyes. And Michael is telling you something as he stands over you, his face going from triple to double finally down to just one. He is standing over you, or is he sitting, or are you sitting? No time to figure that out right now. His mouth is moving but you can’t make out words. You are trying desperately to make sense of what his words are telling you — answers to the questions that are buzzing like flies around your head.

Emergency room, you hear. Seizure, you vaguely make out. More words are tossed around to you as a nurse comes in to pull the tubes out from your arms, detach the IV, give you instructions on what to do in the next few days. But you blur her out, only hearing Michael, holding on to the one anchor keeping you tethered to the room. He is saying something about an electrolyte imbalance, the ecstasy you took. You barely remember meeting his parents for the first time the night before, but were rolling too hard to recall how it went. Michael trails on, the words floating up around your head and disappearing in a haze created by all the sedatives in your bloodstream.

The next 72 hours are a blur. You are in a car, at a restaurant, at a house, in an airplane. You are going home to Atlanta, that much you understand. Time and places and people blur by. Your mom greets you at the airport and you hug her without feeling her. It is pouring raining and humid as ever in Atlanta but you barely feel the drops as they whip you across your face, barely feel the burst of Southern summer heat envelope you in an embrace as you step outside of the airport. Welcome home.

Your mom takes you to the doctor, the same one you used to visit in grade school who gave you tootsie pops after shots. He explains to you about brain scans and electrolyte imbalances and the dangers of drug use, spits out statistics that were foreign and two dimensional in health class but are now, very quickly, becoming enormously tangible. He is pointing at charts of what you are told is your brain. It is splotched with dark spots—spots that look eerily like the Swiss cheese analogies anti-Drug campaigns loved to drill into your head—and you wonder, why do you never listen until it’s too late?

The doctor tells you with apologetic eyes that it will be awhile before you feel normal again. He explains that as your sodium levels dropped dangerously low and your brain was flooded with water, your body shut down, taken over by the spasms of a seizure, and a sort of restart button was pushed in your head. He says you blew out a big serotonin fuse in your head, and in the weeks to come, you may feel like the wires in your brain aren’t connecting like they used to, that you might slip back into a depression. He uses mechanical, medical terms, talking about your brain like a machine, something that simply needs rewiring, a few pills to straighten out the kinks.

But he doesn’t tell you about how in the days to come you won’t be able to keep up a conversation without forgetting what you were saying, getting lost halfway in thoughts. That the sharp mind that got you straight A’s all through high school and college now dumbly strains to grab at easy words, how communicating is a struggle. How all of time is divided into before and after, normal and now.

And he doesn’t warn you about the nights of insomnia where you stay up thinking of suicide until the sun rises, about the way you sit in your room with the door closed while your friends and roommates laugh and party a room away, about the jail cell you build yourself in your brain. He doesn’t tell you about how your boyfriend can’t look at you anymore without flashing back to those moments of you seizing, your limp body shaking heavy in his arms, your eyes rolled back, you unresponsive. You not in there, you not quite you anymore.

He doesn’t tell you about the spider that lodges in your brain, building a web. About how you taste dust when you eat, see ghosts when you sleep, speak in a whisper when all you want to do is scream. You can’t feel the breath entering your lungs or a hot shower warming your bones. Every day all you feel is a desert in your veins. You constantly feel like you are standing one breath, one inch, one day away, reaching, fingers stretched, skin cracking, to go back to the person you used to be, the way you used to feel.

You are desperate to get rid of this. You try to write, the one way you used to be able to find relief. But the words paralyze you. The neat, crisp forms of words line up like rows of little blue pills you wash down in the morning with a glass of water. Words used to swirl around your head. Now, trying to put down words on a sheet of blank paper is like trying to talk to an old lover: you don’t know where to begin. Too much time has elapsed; all the words come out stale.

You grasp for identity. The person you were—outgoing, social, effervescent—has slipped away. Your friends tell you that you’ve changed, get upset with you for not going out on the weekends. You try to explain to them but can’t seem to find a way to articulate what you need to say.

Cheap wine that you buy by the box is the one thing keeping you together. The doctor told you if you ever took ecstasy again you’d end up back in the hospital, but sometimes at night when you lie in bed you can almost taste your craving for the E. It’s the one thing in life you still want, the only thing that triggers a surge of excitement: that little pill of sunshine that electrified your limbs and pulsed through your body. You know if you could go back and do it all over again you still would. You would lose it all again just for one more roll.

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A String of Lights

Posted in Allison McCabe, Junk 5: Fall 2011 with tags , , , , on November 15, 2011 by Tim Elhajj

by Allison McCabe

The valley’s not really magic. When I was a kid I thought it was, because when you drive north on the 405 there’s a moment when you come over the hill and you see the valley laid out beneath you. At night the lights on the buildings glitter red and white and yellow. Those San Fernando cities—Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Sherman Oaks—are indistinguishable at night, each square block a mirror image of the previous one, boundaries dissolved.

So first there were the lights against a black background as we crested, then descended. My daddy used to say: “Look at the sparkly jewels. We are going down into the Seven Dwarves’ Diamond Mine.” Maybe we sang.

Then later, after my dad had been dead for a couple of years and I had little reason to navigate those dusty valley streets, I returned for the dope. I didn’t know about downtown or Bonnie Brae in those days. But my friend had introduced me to his dealer in exchange for two hundred dollars cash and a twenty dollar balloon.

Dope made the valley magic again.

I would take the 405 north, but usually in the daytime. I still felt the sharp-edged pleasure of that nostalgia as I came over the hill. The dealer would tell me where to meet him: a Thrifty or Ralph’s parking lot, the alley behind a bar, some random residential corner. I would park and keep my eyes trained on the rear view mirror, the reflection of the street, heated air shimmering low over the asphalt.

Sometimes, after I copped, I would drive by my dad’s old house. From the outside, it looked the same: wooden fences with chipped white paint sagging under the weight of pine needles, the huge tree in the front yard, the cement stairs and porch under the living room windows. I always slowed and looked for signs of a child–a brightly colored ball, a big wheel, walnuts on the porch for the squirrels.

It was impossible to make it back over the hill without getting high. So I usually wouldn’t take the freeway back. I’d take Laurel or Coldwater so I could turn onto some quiet street, park, and get high. In those days I smoked it, so I always had aluminum foil in the car. Sometimes, if I wasn’t afraid of nodding off, I detoured onto Mulholland for the view. After I got high I wasn’t sick anymore, and I didn’t feel the nostalgia.

The childhood memories are mostly still distorted. But I do remember the squirrels coming right up to the welcome mat and picking up the nuts in their little hands. I watched them from inside, my face pressed against the window, trying hard to stay quiet so I wouldn’t scare them away.

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Higher Ground

Posted in Grady Phelan, Junk 5: Fall 2011 with tags , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2011 by Tim Elhajj

by Grady Phelan

The symptoms are all too familiar.

Your calves are on fire. Muscles cramp. Lower back aches like dead weight. Fingers and toes feel numb. Head pounds, skin itches, sweat dries. You have a runny nose, watery eyes, stiff joints, ass rash, and bruises peppering your limbs. The pain will linger for days. The discomfort is so consuming, so inescapable that, despite your body odor, you haven’t bothered to shower or even change clothes in nearly a week.

Your doctor, if consulted by phone, might presume you fell off the wagon, that you’re lying in bed, that after going on a heroin binge you’re suffering through withdrawal. But at 4,587 feet, alone atop Wright Peak, you know such a diagnosis would be wrong.

For starters, cell reception is spotty at best this deep in the Adirondacks. And you’re far from flat. You’re standing. On a mountain. In snowshoes. At sunrise. By yourself. You’ve been winter hiking and ice climbing the entire vacation, which is why you’re so beat up, so ragged out. Your body feels like a bag of bones, yet you haven’t used junk in a decade. You’re not jonesing. Much to the contrary—at the moment, you’re pretty damn high.

You climbed more than a hundred mountains last year, soaking up alpine views from the Catskills to Colorado. Not much has changed. The substance may be different, but once again, you’re hooked. The wilderness still calls. You still walk through sketchy areas in the dark. Still disappear for days on end. Still push your luck. Still leave loved ones to worry. Still run around chasing dreams.

A friend wonders why you replaced heroin with mountains, failing to realize the question he’s asking is why anyone uses junk in the first place. “It seems so extreme. You put yourself through hell. And it’s dangerous.” You try to explain: it’s not easy, but once you’ve kicked dope a few times, climbing a mountain is no big deal. He asks what you’re looking for. In the heroin days, it wasn’t God, only heaven. Now, it’s about getting to higher ground.

People warn you about going solo. They say it’s risky, especially in winter. But if you’ve learned anything from smack, it’s how to push the envelope without bursting into flames. You still crave that out-of-body experience, to see yourself standing in snow on a summit—the same way you once, nodding from half a bundle, watched from above as you lay to waste on a bathroom floor. Addiction is peeking over the edge without going too far, scaling mountains without falling off them, if only so you’ll be able to climb another day.

You have faith. You believe in yourself.

And so do I.

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All Filler

Posted in Brock Kingsley, Junk 5: Fall 2011 with tags , , , , on September 15, 2011 by Tim Elhajj

by Brock Kingsley

All Filler

Before I turned myself into a blackout drunk, and before Colby killed himself in some lonely room in a Holiday Inn near the I-70 on-ramp, we went to high school together. Scecina Memorial, on the eastside of Indianapolis. A Catholic high school in a blue-collar neighborhood behind a fire station and separated by a chain link fence from a bar called the Shi-Kay. The Shi-Kay was the kind of bar that was filled with the doomed and depressed, alcoholic and addict, and Colby and I would eventually find our ways into their ranks.

In high school, Colby was a brash, pudgy kid whose clothes and hair made it look like he had just come out of a J.C. Penney’s ad. I was constantly being told to tuck in my shirt, and was sent to the dean’s office to shave the two-day growth from my chin. I played sports and ran around with popular kids and drank and got high on the weekends and before school. Colby liked to brag about how expensive his shoes were and thought he could talk shit because his old man was a cop. In his mind, this gave him license. And in most cases, it led to him getting his ass kicked. Still, we got on well enough.

We both played golf at a burnt-out city course named Pleasant Run. And while Colby and I were never really friends, we occasionally played eighteen together. Sometimes it’s enough just to have another human being around. Sometimes you need to know that you’re not alone. We would see each other at parties and pass a joint back and forth and laugh about things that, at the time, seemed hilarious, but things that, now, I can’t remember.

But I do remember how, at that golf course, when nobody was looking, he would sneak into the shed where the concessions were kept and come out with a couple of warm cans of Budweiser. And once out of view from the clubhouse, we would crack them open and chug the beer down. I told him he was stupid for stealing the beer, but I never refused to drink it, no matter how warm.

After high school, I spent a year at two different universities, dropped out of both and came back home. One weekend, I ran into Colby at a party. He was a senior in high school and I was seeing a girl in his class. Everybody at that party was younger than me. Colby and I did shots of vodka in the kitchen until we could barely see, then he laughed and said, “I just want you to know, I’m not going to be like you.” Then he ran outside and threw up.

I understood what he meant: he wasn’t going to be what he considered a two-time loser, future alcoholic, who was maybe hanging on to the thrill of high school a little too long. So I left that party, left the girl, and took a string of nowhere jobs working on maintenance and construction crews, as a parking attendant, in retail, and finally landing at the Shi-Kay.

I began tending bar there in 1999. They needed someone to pick up the late shift a couple of nights a week, and I needed easy access to alcohol. I was twenty-one and my drinking, which had started in high school, had evolved into something like need—a routine like breathing or brushing your teeth.

So I worked from eight p.m. to three a.m. slinging booze to a population that included factory workers coming off a shift, looking to unwind the only way they knew how; ex-athletes gone fat in middle age and unable to let go of the glory days; kids a year or two out of high school wanting to check the place out; in the shadows were drug dealers and the women who were willing to perform blow jobs out back behind the dumpster for one more snort of cocaine; and middle class men from the neighborhood who were slowly being dissolved by alcoholism. We all sat there in a kind of communion, and sometimes, Colby sat there with us.

A year after I started working there, Colby walked into the Kay with a group of buddies during one of my shifts behind the u-shaped bar. “What the hell,” he said. “I didn’t know you were working here.” We shook hands and I asked him how school was going and he told me that he was taking a semester off. “I’m working at a bank right now,” he said. “It’s a good job, I’m making good money, there’s opportunity for advancement.” I nodded and asked him what he wanted to drink. He ordered four Millers and slipped a five into the palm of my hand like he was doing me a favor.

Colby’s semester off turned into a year. And his visits to the Shi-Kay became more frequent—sitting on the same bar stool, ordering the same rum and Coke on a nightly basis. In that same year, I had twice been arrested and gone through as many useless attempts at getting clean. Some nights Colby and I would shoot pool or sit and talk over a beer. But we didn’t talk about my arrests or that he hadn’t gone back to school yet. We didn’t talk about anything. It was all filler: sports, people we went to high school with, women. Mostly we just drank.

Over the next couple of years, Colby got a promotion at the bank, bought a shiny new black car and started to keep his tie on at the bar. Even though I had quit the Shi-Kay, I continued to go downhill. I got a job on the night sort at UPS, working my way up to part-time supervisor, lording over a group of men loading boxes into tractor-trailers. I was half-drunk most nights trying to make sure your packages got to the right place and on time. But really, I didn’t give a shit. I slept all day then stopped at the Kay for a couple of quick pops to steady my hands before heading to work. But when the weekends came I drank until one of two things happened: I passed out or I ran out of money.

One Saturday a group of seven or eight of us were at the Shi-Kay ordering buckets of beer and shots of Jack Daniels like it was the last Saturday we would ever know. And Colby was there buying round after round, trying to impress a bunch of low-rent drinkers who didn’t care where the booze was coming from as long as it kept coming. And somebody had a little baggie of coke and we started to talk faster and louder—the more we sniffed, the more we drank. We sang the wrong lyrics to the wrong songs that were playing on the jukebox, and none of us wanted to go home. So when the bar closed, we bought a few cases of beer from the bartender and moved our party somewhere else.

By six-thirty in the morning the beer was all gone, my nose kept running on account of all the blow I had done, and I was tired of playing Euchre. I stood up and said I was leaving. Colby, who had been playing cards, too, said he would give me a ride. I told him to fuck off. I was going to walk even though I had no idea where I was or which direction to go. I got about a block away before he pulled up next to me in his car and told me to get in, that I was stumbling around and if any cops saw me they were going to arrest my ass again. I closed the door and passed out.

When he pulled up in front of my house, Colby shook me awake, told me I was home. I opened the door, and instead of saying thanks for the ride, vomit splashed my shoes. “Jesus,” Colby said. “You need to get your shit together.” I was twenty-four years old.

Four years later, something clicked and I finally got sober—white knuckling it through each day doing whatever it took not to have a drink. I had moved out of Indianapolis, gone to Ohio, away from the Shi-Kay and the people I used to drink with. I had gone back to school and, a couple months shy of my thirtieth birthday, earned my college degree. I was on my way to graduate school, and hadn’t thought about Colby since that night he’d given me a ride home, when my mother called and told me he was dead. And this might sound crass, but it’s honest: I didn’t know how to feel, so I took the news with a matter-of-factness I thought appropriate.

I learned second hand from a former teacher that Colby had finally graduated from Southern Indiana University. After graduation he got a job as a construction superintendent supervising the building of apartment complexes and warehouses. He got married to a girl I didn’t know, and, together, they bought a house. He volunteered at St. Mary’s Children Center, helping at-risk kids in Indianapolis. I wonder if there were discussions between Colby and his wife about having children of their own. His life seemed to be on an upward trajectory. And then one day he decided he had had enough. His friends said he was depressed, that they should have seen the signs, should have done something. Friends always say that. And when they say it, it’s always too late.

He went out that day and shot the best round of golf in his life—a 66. Then he checked into the Holiday Inn and swallowed fistfuls of pills, washed down with booze, until he fell asleep and didn’t wake up. At least I think it was pills. Still, in my imagination, whenever I think of his suicide, he uses a gun—a big, blue-black gun. Sticks it in his mouth and pulls the trigger so that the last thing he knows is the taste of an old penny.

The pills and booze seem weak, unsure; the gun romantic, decisive. There is no slow fade into oblivion, no fading chance to reach for the phone and maybe make one last desperate attempt to call for help. Just a quick bang and that’s it, blackness and blood splatter. If I’m honest with myself, that’s how I would do it.

I think about Colby’s life and, on paper, at least, it seems like he had it all figured out: a good job, volunteer work, a wife, a house, a regular foursome. But he didn’t. Something was missing. Something was off. And my guess is he couldn’t figure out how to silence that voice that lived somewhere just behind his right ear—the one that kept telling him that he didn’t deserve the house or the wife, that he would never measure up as a man, how no one really loved him and no matter what anyone else said, his whole life was shit. So he stopped it the only way he knew how. He was twenty-nine years old.

I didn’t go to the funeral, didn’t send flowers or a card or my condolences. Maybe I should have. Still, the reason I didn’t go is because I couldn’t handle seeing myself in that casket. Thinking how it could have been me in that hotel room—how our roles could have easily been reversed. The only thing I did was print out the obituary from the Indianapolis Star’s website and read it over and over again. Wondering, if it were mine, would it have been any longer than the four or five lines telling me about Colby’s survivors, his church, his job, and where I should go to pay my last respects.

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