UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
JOE CLIFFORD

Candy And Cigarettes

         A few months after the Hepatitis Heights raid, in the summer of 2000, after I get sick of the endless scamming for a fix, the

fruitless searches for a vein and daily humiliation of eating the food other people throw away, I phone my mother in Connecticut and tell her I am ready to straighten out my life. Again. It takes some wrangling but she buys me a plane ticket back home. This has been my routine for the last couple years. Every few months I make the call, and my mother, desperate to believe in her son again, always falls for it.

         I will check into rehab; I have to recharge my battery. You can only stay out there so long before a break is necessary and you need to get your habit in check, roll back the tolerance clock. The lifestyle wears you down. Moneyís been harder to come by lately, as more friends are getting arrested or dying or just disappearing into the night, and my measures to stay alive have grown increasingly desperate, bringing me one step closer to my greatest fear: prison.

         Rehabs are better on the east coast; I never check into the San Francisco ones. Theyíre too hardcore, run by the jacked-up convicts and behavioral modificationists of Walden House and Delancy Street. Itíll be good to see my mother. Sheís pretty sick.

         I bring enough dope with me so that I wonít go into withdrawal. They will give me methadone once Iím in treatment, so I shouldnít suffer much of a kick.

         I stay with my mom at her condo for a couple days, and try to smile encouragingly when she talks about her faith and how this will be the time I finally turn it around. After she goes to work, I lounge on the big couch, flipping through hundreds of channels of cable television, shooting up heroin and eating her ice cream.

         My mother drives me up from Connecticut to the Brattleboro Retreat in Vermont, and helps me fill out the paperwork, waiting to leave until I am admitted. The Brattleboro Retreat is my favorite rehab. Nestled in the Vermont countryside on sprawling acreage of rolling meadows, itís like a country club, with tennis courts and softball fields, a weight room and an Olympic-sized swimming pool, with meals catered by the Marriot and private patient rooms. After months of batting away mice and ducking ex-cons looking to rip me off at Hepatitis Heights, itís a pretty sweet deal.

* * * *

        In rehab, I am a rock star.

         Itís a great place to meet girls. Iíll get some numbers, call when I get out, weíll party, have a good time, before Iím on my way back to California. Itís not like thereís a lot of competition on the ward. The guys in here are usually in bad shape, overweight, going bald, missing teeth. But thereís never a shortage of attractive girls, and letís face it, youíre catching them when their self-esteem isnít at an all-time high. Twenty-eight days on a locked ward, itís like shooting fish in a barrel.

         A guy like me only needs two things to pick up girls on the inside: candy and cigarettes. Junkie girls going through withdrawal crave the sugar, and there isnít much to do in-between groups on proper nutrition, emotional triggers, and relapse prevention besides smoke. On our way in, I had my mom stop at 7-11 so I could stock up on both.

         After a couple weeks of eating right and sleeping, putting some pounds back on, Iím looking pretty good. I have become very popular with the other patients. I am always the most popular guy in rehab. I tell the best stories; everyone laughs at my jokes. At night, I play the unitís guitar on the smoking porch. People gravitate to me. In high school I hung with the ugly people in the art room. Back then, I was undersized and unremarkable, a creep and a weirdo. In here, Iím quarterbacking the goddamn team.

         I notice her the moment she walks onto the floor.

         Her name is Becky, and sheís pretty. Really pretty. Winona Ryder pretty. On her first night in, while the rest of the unit attends an AA meeting, I stay behind to be alone with her on the smoking porch. Sheís shaky because they donít give you methadone until you see the doctor, and when she came in, the doctor had already left for the day.

         I make small talk with her, do my charming, nervous guy thing. I can tell that she likes what Iím selling but sheís hurting. I say I have just what she needs. I light up a Camel and offer her some Skittles.

         The next day, weíre making eyes at one another over breakfast, exchanging notes like teenagers after group, playing telephone with other patients and passing messages down the line to see if we ďlikeĒ each other. Youíre not allowed to have romantic relations in rehab, but soon Becky and I are eating our meals together, holding hands in the patient lounge when no oneís looking; then weíre kissing around corners and under the stairwells, feeling each other up in the bathrooms.

         I hadnít spoken to my wife, Hadley, in almost a year when she got a hold of me at my motherís house a few weeks back. Weíve been speaking regularly since. My wife is living in Los Angeles now, sober after having completed a long-term residential program in Hollywood. She sounds good, clearheaded and determined, like sheís working ďthe program,Ē which is what they call it in recovery when addicts are doing the right thing, attending AA meetings and taking personal moral inventories. Hadley says she wants me to come visit her when I am clean.

         Even though we havenít lived together for a long time, I still love my wife. Very much. Itís just that I love something more.

         A week and a half after I meet Becky, we check out of rehab together.

* * * *

        For the next seven months, I will be consumed.

         Becky and I will head cross country to San Francisco, fucking through Nebraska cornfields while I drive and she bunches her skirt, pulls her panties to the side and straddles me, tall stalks whisking by on a lost highway. We will shack up in Tenderloin flophouses, get arrested, have our hotel rooms raided, get collared by the cops. Becky and I will fuck and fight incessantly. We will lie and steal money from banks and live a life on the run. And when our crimes finally catch up with us and we are forced apart, and she flees San Francisco for the safety of her parentsí home in Vermont, I will be right on her heels, because I cannot live without her. She will be the best running partner I ever have.

         People who arenít addicts will ask me later, after the crash, what it was I saw in Becky. They will not understand how I couldíve been so crazy about the girl. They will say she didnít seem particularly bright or like she cared about me, and that aside from the way she looked, she didnít have much going for her. And they will be right. But they donít understand junkie love. When youíre as sick and addicted as we, the rules to that game change. When youíve just banged a speedball up your thigh and have finished going down on each other, and you lay collapsed, half naked, pants by your ankles, tourniquet still wrapped around, you canít tell if itís the orgasm or the rush of the narcotics that is making you feel so needed, so loved, so perfectly at peace with your disjointed world, because there is no division anymore, not from you, or from her, or from the drugs; it is one big tingling pleasure center, and it is viral and it is parasitic.

         Becky will be my heroin.

* * * *

        It is wintertime and very cold in early February 2001. We are in a roadside motel in Rutland, Vermont, a miserable little town.

         I wrote a song for Becky. Its first line, stolen word for word from Tom Waits: ďIíll love you, baby, ítil the money runs out.Ē And the money has run out. We are out of scams. Out of lies. Out of hope. We have warrants out for our arrest. My mother is dying and I desperately want her to see her oldest boy clean before she goes.

         At thirty-one, I will have taken this as far as it can go.

         Slate skies hang low over one-lane roads packed with mud and sludge and snow as one storm blends into the next.

         We pay for the night with the last of our money, shoot up everything weíve got, and fuck our way through dawn until we are empty. Now it is morning. Check out time is 11 a.m. The sickness will be coming soon, and I know that despite our promises to stay together I am losing her.

         Becky has fallen asleep on her stomach. I sit naked on the floor and watch her, the New England light graying her skin, wishing I could stop time, find a way to place us both in a box for all eternity, because nothing good is going to be happening to either one of us for a very long time.

         The clock reads 10:46. I know because I am looking at it when they come.

         When the police come for you, it is pretty much like in the movies. They bang loudly, but before you can answer the door is kicked in, and you are spread eagle on the floor, hands cuffed behind your back, and ordered not to talk or theyíll shoot.

         They drag Becky and me outside and throw us into the backs of separate cruisers before I have a chance to ask her if she has any cigarettes left. Her car pulls away first. I know not to turn around. I know doing so will be a mistake. But I do it anyway.

         As the taillights recede into the gusting Vermont snow, I catch that sad, lonesome wave goodbye from the rear window, and I know she is never coming back. And I am alone again, scared, looking up at a mountain I am too tired to climb.

         When you say goodbye to someone at an airport or a bus station (or from the back of a police car), do not turn around. If you do, youíll regret it for the rest of your life.

Candy And Cigarettes is a selection from Joe Clifford's memoir, Junkie Love, which is represented by MDM Management, New York. His work has appeared in Big Bridge, Bryant Literary Review, the Connecticut Review, Dark Sky, Fringe, Hobart, Opium, Thuglit, and Word Riot, among others. Most recently he served as editor of Gulf Streammagazine, and is currently the producer of Lip Service West, a reading series in Oakland, CA. His stories and poetry be found at www.joeclifford.com







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