UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
THREE STRANGE DAYS
I call 1-800-ALCOHOL from the Vermont State Police barracks. They will come pick me up and bring me into treatment down in Worcester, Mass.
I have a warrant out in Massachusetts for my arrest. I was caught with needles and dope on one of my trips back east. Itís how I woke up on my 30th birthday naked in a Greensboro jail. When Vermont runs my name, though, my warrant does not show up in their system. I sit in a warm room, no handcuffs, being brought cups of hot coffee and sandwiches, at a police station where I have not been charged with any crime, as I wait for a driver to pick me up and bring me to rehab. Like the diseases Iíve been spared, the flesh-eating bacteria Iíve escaped, the loss of limbs Iíve avoided, the never having had to suck a dick for a fix, all these breaks I have been given hit home hard on this cold winterís day in Vermont.
I am going to walk out of here.
I detox in Worcester. Becky goes back to Brattleboro. Becky and I talk on the telephone every day. We say we love each other. We say we will be together. The only thing more frightening than living life sober is the thought of living life sober and alone.
Now we only have to do something 99% of heroin addicts cannot do, get off the heroin.
I complete a weeklong detox and am let go. My resolve isnít quite as strong as it was seven days ago. My mother picks me up and brings me to her house. I tell her I am committed to my recovery this time and need to borrow her car to go to an NA meeting. God willing, mother, I will kick this awful disease.
Getting high for the first time in seven days, I feel like a virgin getting his first blowjob. I sit in a random parking lot, of a random West Hartford, CT, apartment complex, skin warming like a niacin flush without the prickly parts. How could I ever give this up? Now I just need to get Becky.
I have one thing of value left at my motherís. It is something I have managed not to sell all these years, no matter how tough times got. It is something that means everything to me, a testament to my commitment to art. My sunburst Rickenbacker guitar, the one I used on the 1997 recording with my band, the Wandering Jews, Clean Living.
I sell that guitar for $500. It will be enough for Becky and me to start our new life together.
There is a community payphone at the Brattleboro Retreat, where the program can run up to fourteen days or longer. Iíve been there enough to know the drill. Last time I spoke with Becky, sheíd sounded fine. But now I am having a hard time getting her on the line. Seems I keep missing her. She is at dinner. Or in group. At an AA meeting. Then someone answers and tells me there is no one named Becky on the ward. Hasnít been for a while. My stomach sinks. I know what has happened without anyoneís having to tell me.
Itís like meeting a girl at a party who has a boyfriend, but she screws around with you anyway, and then she is your girlfriend. And all it means is that for the rest of the time youíre together youíll have to look over your shoulder. At the very least, sheís never going to a party by herself. I am so distraught; I donít even feel like getting high.
Becky calls a couple days later. It is early but my mother has already left for work. Despite being diagnosed with scleroderma, my mother still gets up at six a.m. and goes to work every day. Scleroderma is a disease in which your body attacks itself, specifically the collagen under your skin. Over time, your body turns to stone. The disease has already taken over her hands. The Connecticut cold is bad for them and the raynauds. Her fingers are blue, the tips eaten away, ulcers digging painful holes to the bone. Becky tells me his name is Robert.
Robert is fifty years old, an ex-police officer and a crackhead. She is so sorry; she never intended for this to happen. I am in my motherís kitchen sobbing like a child, unable to catch my breath. Please, donít leave me alone in this world, baby. I ask where she is. Albany, New York, she says. I ask her to come back. She doesnít answer. I will come get you, I say. She says she is sorry. I walk to my motherís work, which isnít far, and ask to borrow the car. Another meeting. This oneís important, Mom.
I remember being in rehab once and asking an old-timer, one of these cats whoís been shooting dope since the time of laudanum and dropper heads, how much heroin it would take to guarantee a man never wake up again. He said a brick. Thatís fifty bags.
ďA brick,Ē he said, ďwill kill a horse.Ē
I phone my Hartford connection, tell him I have $500 and to bring me a brick of heroin. We meet in an abandoned supermarket parking lot. I purchase fifty bags of heroin and return to my motherís house. My mother will not be home for a while.
The world is perfectly still. It is about to be over. I am not crying. I am not feeling much of anything. No, I am happy to end this. This life has exhausted me. I have failed thoroughly at it. It has been a long time since I could say I did something right, anything good. I simply cannot try anymore.
I empty all fifty bags, which takes a while, each one sealed in individual plastic. I use a very big spoon, add very little water, and even then it doesnít all fit. It takes two very big spoons. Fifty bag of heroin glosses over like molasses. I need two needles to get it all drawn up.
I tie off and try for my biceps. Iíve been muscling of late, which is what junkies call forgoing the vein and injecting straight into the muscle, like a flu shot. You donít get the rush and you risk abscesses, but thereís nothing else you can do when your veins all dry up the way mine have. To do this successfully, however, I need to hit a vein. I know I have a big one deep in my biceps. All the points I have are old, worn, and it hurts like hell fishing for that vein. But I need it today. I am not going out of this life shooting up in my dick.
I hit the vein. Or at least part of it. I have to work fast, get it all in and pull out, reload and find the vein again, all before I pass out.
My last conscious thought is, I did it. There is no molasses left. I did it. It is over.
I feel absolutely nothing.
Angry blue ice cascades down the face of the Adirondacks, like jagged stalactites in a limestone cave, rushing waters frozen mid-sentence. The Berkshires are distant, giant bowls of soft pine and mulch enclosed by rocky crags, towering peaks and ridges, the Catskills that rise up and abort the horizon. Pick the highest point. Climb to the top. Sleep in a log cabin and name your pet wolf Sheeba. Pull pike from a hole in the ice, pack moose meat in deep freezers. Life must be simple for a mountain man.
Iím not thinking so hot. Iíve just woken up on the kitchen floor of my motherís house with a needle still in my arm after attempting suicide by injecting $500 worth of heroin directly into my bloodstream. I donít know how I woke up, how I am still alive. More than once it occurs to me, maybe Iím not.
The Mass Pike takes you from Connecticut to Albany, through the Berkshires, along the Adirondacks and into upstate New York and the Catskills. I made the trip with my mom and brother many times when I was a kid to visit my aunt and cousins, who live in Schenectady, which borders Albany. The two-hour trip seemed to take forever back then. I race along that same route now.
I donít like driving through Massachusetts because of that goddamn warrant, but I have no choice. Itís only a thirty-minute stretch. Iíll be in and out and in New York in no time. I canít stop thinking of her naked on top of him, doing the things we did, writhing, pressing her tight young body up against his sagging old man parts, doing that thing with her feet and making the same squirrelly sounds when she comes. The blue icicles shimmer.
I am beyond high, straddling the line between worlds, my head thick as over-cooked oatmeal. I am so fucked up that I donít realize Iíve had the car in third gear the entire time. Everything is buzzing, hissing so loudly between my ears that I donít hear the engineís grinding, donít hear it racing, clunking and finally breaking down. I only notice when the car stops running and black smoke pours out from beneath the hood.
I am fifteen minutes into Massachusetts.
I leave the car, its blown engine smelling like a freshly tarred roof, on the side of the Mass Pike, and take off into the woods. I donít have any idea where I am going. But I run. I run as far, as fast as I can. Iím fleeing an Oak Creek execution, through snowdrifts knee high, weaving beneath bramble, over dead brush, under the tree limbs that hang down waiting to snatch me up.
The only thing I have for warmth is a flimsy tan tweed jacket that my wife, Hadley, bought for me at an LA thrift store called La Bonita y Cheapa. She also bought me these tattered brown shoes. They were very cheap, one dollar and fifty cents, and the New England winter is not treating them kindly. The sole has started to peel off one of them. As I run, it flops like a wounded clown shoe.
Everything looks the same. Tightly packed white hills and trees. A lot of trees. Tall, short, thick evergreen gray, twisting fat skinny ugly trees covered with ice and snow. The charcoal skies churn. Still I run. I donít stop, hypnotized by the beating of my own heart, haunted by the sound of my own breath. I look up and am delirious with vertigo. I did not wake up on that kitchen floor. This world is too grey, too cold, too fucking dead, like the nuclear fallout of a perverted fairy tale. This is where people like me go when they die.
I pass out beneath a tall oak.
There is still some light when I go under. When I wake up, it is dark, black, no stars, no moon, nothing to show me the way. My feet and hands are numb. I wear no gloves. I am certain they are frostbitten. I start walking in what I hope is the direction of the car, arms wrapped around me as I shiver to the point of spasming.
I donít know how long I had been running but it was a while. I donít see any highway lights, canít see much at all. Iíve got to get back to the car. I donít care that the cops will be there or that the car doesnít run. I need to get inside something warm. I can feel my breath freeze as soon as itís expelled.
I find the highway. The cops are waiting at the car. They run my name. The warrant shows up. They read me my rights and cuff me. They take me to the station, where I am photographed and booked. I will spend the night in jail. In the morning, they will bring me before the judge.
The end is still tough to sort out. It happens so fast; it plays like a dream. The next morning, I am ORíd again, or maybe they drop the charges. I donít know why theyíd let me go after I didnít show up the last time. But I know I walk out of there and that my mother picks me up in a friendís car in front of the courthouse. It is early afternoon. She doesnít say a word to me, wonít even look at me. I am out of cigarettes and am afraid to ask her to stop and get me some. She drives straight to the bus station in Connecticut.
At the depot, she asks me where I want to go. I say back to my wife. My mother buys me a one-way ticket for LA. Where else can I go? Someone has to take care of me.
I sit at the Greyhound Station in Hartford, waiting to board a bus back to California, uncertain if I will even make it to LA. The bus doesnít depart for hours, which should give me time to think, but thinking is the last thing on my mind. Maybe Iíll go back to San Francisco. Maybe the earth really is flat and I will drive off its edge. It all seems so far away from me now.
I am so devastated that I havenít made plans for the medication I will need to make this trip. I wonder what the half-life of a brick of heroin is. I hear my name called over the loudspeaker. I know I am not entirely lucid, so I wait. I hear it again. I have a telephone call.
I donít know how she couldíve known where I was. My mother never wouldíve told her, but when I pick up the phone at the Greyhound ticket window Becky is on the other line.
She is so sorry. She still loves me. She is being held against her will in Albany. She wants to leave this guy, this fifty-year-old crackhead, because it is me she wants, but he is getting violent. He wonít let her leave. She is so scared. Becky needs me to come save her. She gives me the address and a telephone number.
I exchange my ticket to California for one to Albany. I have money left over and time to kill so I score dope around the corner and shoot up in a pizza shop. I donít feel it.
I make Albany as night falls. I get off the bus and call Becky. She does not pick up. A manís voice asks me to a leave a message on the answering machine. I do not leave a message. I double check the number and call again. And again. I go to the address she gave me, which is on South Pearl Street and not far from the terminal, just beyond a vacant lot strewn with dry sheets of newspaper and a three-legged ping-pong table. The crackhead lives in a tall building with over twenty floors. The apartment number is for the seventeenth. The neighborhood is ragged with giant holes in the ground where other apartments used to be. I ring the bell but no one answers. The front door to the foyer is locked so I need someone to buzz me in or for someone to come out. No one does. I spend the next couple hours running between the closest payphone, which is at the terminal, and the apartment complex. Becky never answers.
I call information, get another number, and ring my aunt. I tell her that her nephew is in town and ask if I could stay with her for the night. She picks me up at the bus depot and brings me to her house.
I phone Becky again. This time I leave a message with my auntís number.
My Aunt Patty is slightly touched and lives alone. This side of the family is poor and Patty suffers from severe depression and is heavily medicated. Though we donít see each other much, she knows what I am and does not judge me for it. Her apartment is small, dumpy, the kind of one-bedroom apartment that they have a lot of in Schenectady. My grandmother was an alcoholic, and when Patty and my mother were kids, theyíd frequently have to drag her out of neighborhood bars. My mother used to tell a story about one particular Christmas when all there was in the refrigerator was a head of lettuce and some mustard. I imagine that apartment looked a lot like this one.
My aunt falls asleep. I sit in the living room, fighting to stay awake.
Becky finally calls. She is so sorry. The man wouldnít let her pick up or leave, but he has left the apartment now to get crack and she is on her way. It is one a.m. I sit in a chair and wait.
I do not sleep. I donít think I slept in jail the night before, either. I mayíve tried to hang myself in that cell, which is why I woke up without any clothes on, why my throat is sore. Or that couldíve been another time. I donít think they wouldíve released me had I been suicidal. I am not thinking clearly. I imagine this is what madness truly feels like, what Hadley feels like most of the time.
At six a.m., there is a knock at the door. My whole body tenses, heart jams in my throat. I know that as soon as I open that door everything will be OK. There will be a girl standing there to love me, to make this go away. I will breathe. I will not have to be alone. I open the door and it is the paperboy. He is there to collect. I tell him my aunt is sleeping and that I have no money. He hands me a bill.
I grab the car keys from my auntís purse and leave the bill on the counter.
It is not a far drive from Schenectady to Albany, maybe fifteen minutes. I am not on the highway for five minutes when the police pull me over. They ask whose car this is. I tell them my auntís. The officer believes me. Patty didnít report it stolen or anything. Cops just seem to know where I am these days and that I am up to no good. I ask if he is arresting me. He says no, but he canít let a junkie, which is what I clearly am, back on the road. He asks where I am headed. I tell him my girlfriendís. He tells me to get in the cruiser, heíll give me a ride. They tow my auntís car.
The cop drops me off in a dusty parking lot and tells me to get help. I say OK, and thank him for not arresting me and extend my hand. He says I am welcome. He wishes me the best of luck. But he will not touch me.
The sun has come up. It is 7:00 a.m. I am in Albany, New York.
I find discarded yellow plastic from a newspaper bundle and tie it around my shoe. I am losing my sole. The plastic does not tie well and keeps coming unraveled. The bottom of my foot is bruised.
My father would never walk away.
Becky answers when I ring the buzzer and comes downstairs. She doesnít look the same, isnít as pretty as I remember. Her skin is almost translucent, waxy and pale, like a taut white string bean. Itís clear she hasnít slept in a while and is obviously high on crack, her eyes vacuous pits. I notice these course black hairs jutting beneath her chin that I hadnít noticed before. I beg her to come away with me, to love me still.
But I have nowhere to take her.
I donít even have a car to take her nowhere in. The cops have taken my auntís car. I am out of my fucking mind. Every time I take a step I feel like I am disappearing. I have nothing. Becky has just finished blowing an old man for a hit of crack. And I am on my hands and knees begging her to take me back.
I canít stop crying like a little boy hyperventilating, chest heaving sobs and snot bubbles, the tears clearing tiny dirt paths down my cheeks, and her eyes are so wide as she stares off into glassy space past my shoulder, like she canít hear a goddamn word I am saying, everything vacant and empty, muted, and it is that high winter sun, the kind you can stare directly at and it wonít hurt your eyes because it is so far away, a dull old mustard dot, in that crisp, biting Northeastern cold, the kind of cold where every time the wind blows it makes your eyes water and feels like pins pricking your flesh. I beg her to please love me still.
Becky says she is not coming back. I tell her I am going to get sober. She says she knows. I tell her if it is the last thing I do, I am going to get sober. Becky says she knows.
I ask her to have one last drink with me and we walk across the street to the kind of bar that is open at 7 a.m. No one notices us. I donít want a drink. I bring Becky to the back of the bar, into a darker corner and press against her. She tries to wriggle free, but I donít let her. I tell her to be quiet. I position her snuggly against my cock and make her get me off.
I havenít seen her since.
I walk several blocks, toward the downtown skyscrapers. I see a building under construction, wrapped with scaffolding, and hop the guardrail. I begin to climb. The scaffolding goes very high, into the clouds. I will jump. No guesswork this time, no trying to calculate how much poison is needed to thwart tolerance. You go high enough and fall and your body breaks. I will go high enough and fall so that my body breaks.
Bare feet wedge into metal braces, thin, quavering arms pull mightily. Twenty, thirty feet up, panting like an animal, I turn around and look down on the street. People have stopped what they are doing. Mothers hold childrenís hands. Old couples twist bent bodies. Construction workers have turned off their Bobcats and do not smoke. All look up at a madman.
I think of a dinner date. With Hadley. Back when we first met. We used to go out to dinner a lot. Fancy places. I was a bum even then. She loved me, but I was a bum. Sheíd buy me nice clothes, dress me up, and take me out to dinner, and before the bill came sheíd slip me the money, under the table, to pay for it. It seemed kind of pointless. Money is money, what would a restaurant care who pays the bill? I donít know why this thought of all thoughts pops into my head, as I stand on that scaffolding, seven years later, essentially divorced, and about to fall to my death. Itís just so fucking sad. I think I get it now, the way every girl dreams of her husband, this wonderful man she will marry and how in love they will be, and there was Hadley, pretending that the man she loved was taking her out to dinner.
It breaks my goddamn heart.
I remember a friend once saying that the harder he tried not to end up like his old man, the more he ended up just like him.
In AA, they call this the moment of clarity.
I tell myself that I live for art and beauty, that Iíve thwarted the conventional out of higher principals, that Iíve endured years of torment with the belief that a big payoff would justify the misery. It is clear to me now that no such moment is coming. I am full of shit.
There is nothing beautiful or the least bit artistic in my life. I am tired of fighting and failing and having to ask for cigarettes. These people I claim to despise are the same people on whom I am dependant, the same ones I beg to give me their leftover pizza crusts and loose change.
It isnít that complicated.
Every problem in my life is because of drugs.
I climb down, take the $47 in wadded-up bills I have left in my pocket and I get on a Greyhound bus. I go straight to rehab. I do not pass the ghetto. I do not collect any junk.
This is the last day.
Joeís work has appeared in Big Bridge, Bryant Literary Review, the Connecticut Review, Dark Sky, Fringe, Hobart, Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, and Word Riot, among others.
His writing can be found at www.joecliffordcandyandcigarettes.blogspot.com and at www.joeclifford.com
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