Recent Work By Tom Hansen

What She Said

By Tom Hansen

Memoir

I was in the offices of The Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) here in Seattle, talking to a caseworker about getting DVR to fund the remaining two years of my MFA. This was 2006, I was 44 years old, seven years off heroin, six years into my education and halfway through an MFA at The University of British Columbia. In my former life as first a failed musician and then a functioning heroin addict and successful drug dealer I had been lucky and smart and devious enough to never have been caught selling or possessing heroin, or when I had been caught, weaseled or schemed my way out of it, and had been funding my new direction in life with Stafford Loans and the odd grant, all channels that would have been off limits to me if I’d ever been convicted of the bazillions of crimes I’d committed over the years. Everything had been running smoothly, through Community College, a BA and the first two years of grad school. I was four years into a memoir I’d been working on and I was beginning to have hope for the future. This was big for someone like me. Pulling oneself out of an addiction as self-destructive as mine is a long grueling process. It takes years to rebuild your self-confidence and to deal with feeling things again and I was well on my way. And then life threw me a curveball, which it’s known to do. George W. Bush, the “Decider,” decided to make some major cuts to education funding, one of which was to cut all student loans to US citizens attending colleges outside the US. That meant me.

 

The DVR caseworker sat across from me as I explained what was what. She looked at me apprehensively, and then explained that DVR didn’t fund art programs, only vocational stuff. “Anyone can write,” she said dismissively, when I told her what kind of program I was enrolled in. This kind of pissed me off, but I kept my cool. I told her about my disabilities that I’d acquired as a result of my End Game with heroin, the destroyed and degenerating hip that required me to walk with a cane, my mangled right elbow, my contracted hands from shooting up in my arms so much the wires controlling most of my fingers had been severed. She was unmoved. She insisted I change course, give up writing and accept some kind of training in the vocational realm. I told her I would think about it and left.

 

I’m a very quiet guy, usually.* I’m very good at staying out of trouble and avoiding conflict, which ironically is why I was such a good drug dealer for so many years. But it was less a thought out plan and more just the way I’ve always been, which I think I got from my adoptive parents, Norwegian immigrants, some of the most unobtrusive, hardworking and stoic people on the face of the Earth. When life threw curveballs at my parents they ducked. When it came too fast and the ball hit them, it knocked them down, and then they picked themselves up and carried on. They never complained, and going after the pitcher was never an option for them. They were firm believers that “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” And that rubbed off on me. When people messed with me in school, I never fought back. Never. I don’t know where the hell Mr. Miyagi was when I was growing up. Not in my neighborhood, apparently.

 

I stewed for a few days after the caseworker told that I shouldn’t be a writer. What she said played over and over in my head. “Anyone can write,” echoed in my mind and the more I thought about it the madder I got. I didn’t want to be a riveter. I didn’t want to work in some damned office. I didn’t want to work on spreadsheets or computer programs or bullet points. I’d always had artistic inclinations that I’d gotten from my biological parents who had been artists and with writing I had found the creative outlet I had always been looking for, the one I had come to conclude was what I should have been doing all along as music had turned out to be too laden with traps regarding my drug problem. It wasn’t that I had delusions of grandeur about writing, fantasies of fame and fortune, it was simply that I wanted to do something that I loved. I had grown to love writing, and I think writing loved me. It was what had kept me clean to that point. It had taught me discipline and perseverance and instilled in me a new kind of work ethic. I knew of course that I could be a writer without finishing the degree, but I was still in a somewhat fragile state regarding my self-confidence, my abilities as a writer and my psychological condition. I had never finished anything legitimate in my life and I wanted to finish this degree. It would be additional proof that my old life was over and a springboard to whatever came next.At least that was what I hoped. And prayed.

 

Normally I would have accepted my fate. I would have told myself my education was over and it wasn’t meant to be. This was what I’d done my entire life. I had responded to these situations the way my parents had. It was one of the things that led me to drugs. I hadn’t been able to make a career of music and suddenly found that I was good at drug dealing. Really good. Everyone wants to be good at something, and that was my thing, and now that my education was over it looked like it was going to be my thing again. I began to think about selling heroin again, and trying to keep my using under control. I knew that that was damned near impossible, but I still had too much pride, and would rather be successful at something even if it killed me than be unsuccessful at everything and live.

 

And then I decided to do something I’d never done before. I decided to fight. I really didn’t think anything would come of it. I had no faith in my government, and I didn’t think I would even get a response. I was sure that if anything I would get a letter back from some Bushbot saying “Sorry kid,” but I sat down that night and wrote an email to The US Department of Education, who informed me that when these sorts of cuts had happened in the past, students who had begun something were grandfathered in and allowed to finish what they’d started, but this time, that was not the case. Bush’s ‘decision’ was final. It was over. I was Shit-Out-Of-Luck (SOL) as they say. And then I got madder and decided to fight harder. I wrote letters to Rep. Jim McDermott, Gov. Christine Gregoire, and Sen. Maria Cantwell. I used every writing skill I’d learned to that point and crafted an argument (I should have been a lawyer) that given my physical disabilities I was not suited for a regular labor job, and that I could use a writing degree to become a teacher in the future. I was honest. I even told them that I was a former heroin addict (I left out the part about me being a dealer for almost twenty years) and that I was trying desperately to forge a new direction in my life. I told them about the not being grandfathered in. I made my case.

 

And then to my utter surprise two days later I received a call from Rep. Jim McDermott’s office. They told me they had received my letter, and asked how they could help. I asked if they could help me persuade DVR to help me fund the last two years of my degree. And that night I got a call from some bigwig at DVR, who said Jim McDermott had called him. He did not sound happy at all, but he went on to say said that DVR didn’t ordinarily fund art programs, but that they were going to make an exception in my case. Jim McDermott, who didn’t know me from Adam, had apparently done some arm-twisting for me. Little old me.

 

The moral of this story is that people can change. For most of my life I didn’t think that was possible, and for most of my life it kept me stuck in self-destruct mode. This was the first time something like this had happened. It didn’t even happen when I first got clean. That I put down to divine intervention. But this was different. I had changed. Just like the characters we write about have to undergo some kind of change or transformation or overcome an obstacle, I had changed from someone who just accepts things to someone willing to fight for what they want. It was an amazing lesson that informs my writing and it restored (somewhat) my faith in government. And that’s how I graduated from The University of British Columbia, became a writer, finished my memoir American Junkie, got it published and became a fan of Jim McDermott. The End

 

*Except when I’m shooting my fat mouth off on The Nervous Breakdown (I’m working on it people)

The first time I threw up I was very young. You know what I’m talking about, barfing, blowing chunks, etc. I don’t remember what happened exactly, probably I ate something. It happens to us all. Vomiting in those circumstances is very unpleasant–head in the toilet bowl, sweating, retching, your entire body heaving, trying to expel whatever it didn’t like. That stomach acidy stuff gets up into your nose, whatever. Sucks. Afterward you still feel bad, pushing back the nausea so it won’t happen again.

I was about fifteen. Kind of innocent. Just beginning to discover some things. I had gone over to a friend’s house. His parents were gone and we’d gotten our hands on some booze, vodka or whisky, I can’t recall. We got smashed, threw up and lay around moaning about Charlie’s Angels. Some time later with that same friend we got our hands on some Bacardi 151 rum. Here’s a tip. Do not eat cashews before drinking rum. Rum/cashew puke is pretty bad. I haven’t been a big fan of either ever since. In fact, the strange old bus driver in the town I lived in used to offer me cashews when I boarded the bus. “Cashews?” she would say, holding out a bag. “No…urrmph,” I said, trying to hold back the queasiness.

When I was sixteen I went to a big house party. I had always been a very quiet and shy boy, very much a loner in high school, and I saw this as maybe a chance to meet some girls. I hadn’t been kissed since the fifth grade and all of my friends had lost their virginities except me. Here’s another tip. If you want to get in with the popular kids at school and maybe hook up, don’t get smashed on booze and pot and throw up on one of the school’s cheerleaders. That was the end of my love life until I met Punk Rock chicks a couple of years later. Thank God for Punk Rock chicks, and then later, strippers and hairdressers. But I digress.

Puking was always very unpleasant for me, and usually followed by a shitty hangover. Not very fun. That’s how my vomiting career went until I discovered Opiates. They made throwing up kind of cool. I would drink a bunch of beer, smoke some pot, take twelve Percodans, some girl would be talking to me outside a punk show, I would lift my finger to indicate they should hold on a sec, turn my head, “Hwhaaugh!” throw up into the bushes, turn back and continue chatting her up. Opiates made throwing up no more unpleasant than spitting, or pissing, or taking a dump. I didn’t feel bad after and could keep doing whatever it was I was doing.

And then I graduated from Percodans to heroin and suddenly stopped throwing up at all, ever. And that was the end of my barfing career, and the beginning of another career, but I already wrote a whole book about that.

The End

November 1991. I stared out the partially fogged up window, my cheek pressed up against the cold glass. Down the street people at the grocery store were going about their lives, on their way home from their jobs. Walking into the store. Pushing shopping carts. Making choices. Standing in lines. Opening the backs of their Jeeps. Loading bags of groceries. Closing the backs of their Jeeps. Strapping kids into car seats. Driving home. It was raining.

I hadn’t left my room for three days, hadn’t slept in four. Most of the time I’d been at the window. During the day I watched the people down the street. At night I stared out into the darkness, seeing shadows move or imaginary rodents in the bushes. Every half an hour or I would drag myself from the window and over to the mattress to fix up another speedball, or two or three, or however many. I threw the used syringes on the floor. Every week or two Monica would come in and gather them all up and take them to the needle exchange, come back with a couple grocery bags full of new ones.

I heard the deep rumble of a Harley pull up outside the house. It was Shifty. Ordinarily I didn’t let customers come over to the house but I had been ignoring my beeper for three days and I was running out of money. These coke binges had been really screwing me up. As long as heroin was all I used everything ran like clockwork, but once or twice a year I would feel an irresistible pull to shoot coke and then it would have to run its course, usually a few days, maybe a week. I would shut myself in a room and not come out. I could hear Shifty’s motorcycle boots clomping up the stairs. He knocked.

“Come in,” I said.

He opened the door, took one step inside and froze.

A few days before this Monica and I had been on our way out to see a movie. The Addams Family. As I was pulling out of the driveway, Sharon, our roommate, pulled up. She’d just spent a week at her mother’s in Eastern Washington, detoxing. She rushed over and stopped me before I could back out of the driveway, an urgent look on her face. I knew what she wanted. Usually I would give someone like her the lecture, “You’re past the worst of it. Why do you want to get messed up again?” It had never worked, but I usually gave it a shot. And when they persisted, which they always did, and I relented, which I always did, I would say, “Be careful, your tolerance is down. Do it in two or three shots.” But that night I was in a hurry, Monica and I had to get to the movie. I ran into the house and sold her thirty-five dollars worth, then ran back to the car and headed for The Cinerama downtown. I thought the movie was dumb but Monica seemed to enjoy it. When we got home I went straight up to my room to do a shot. I had just finished when Monica knocked and stuck her head in.

“Sharon’s dead. She OD’d.”

I’d seen it before. People OD’d and died most often after they tried to quit. Their tolerance would be down, or they would get drunk and want to get high and that was that. People should just stop trying to quit, I thought. Then they would have a tolerance, some margin for error and this kind of shit wouldn’t happen. Sharon had been a nice girl, smart, quiet, not pretty enough to be a stripper like Monica and had struggled to get by with a regular job. I told myself that this is what happens when you choose this life. I told myself that where Sharon was now wasn’t so different from where I still was, that I was the living dead and she was just plain dead. I told myself, and Monica told me too, that it wasn’t my fault. All those things might have been true, or not. I wasn’t sure what my level of responsibility was. But I knew one thing, I had to get out of there. The cops would come, and the medics, and I didn’t want to be around for that circus. I cleaned all the syringes out of my room and packed up my drugs. As I walked out through the living room I looked over at Sharon’s door. It was open slightly. A picture formed in my mind, of her in there sprawled on the bed, her eyes open, staring, a needle in her arm.

Shifty stood there stunned, looking around the room. The entire floor was covered in syringes, two or three deep in some places, like hundreds of driftwood logs washed up onto a beach.

“Come on,” I said, “sit down.”

He stood there, staring at the syringes.

“Hey!,” I said, “come on.”

Finally, he snapped out of it and walked slowly and carefully over to the mattress, his boots crunching on the syringes. It sounded like someone walking on a gravel road. He sat down carefully on the corner of the mattress. Speechless, he looked around the room again at the hundreds of used syringes and the bottles of piss.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“A hundred,” he replied.

I began weighing up his piece.

“Man….,” he said, looking around, “this is….wow.”

I chuckled. “Yeah.”

It was shocking, I suppose, to him, to other people, even ordinary junkies. But to me it was simply the natural landscape of my world. I finished weighing up his piece, he thanked me and left, his boots crunching on the way out. As soon as he was gone, I began cooking up some speedballs.

My veins had been gone for a couple years. They’d simply dried up, run away from the onslaught of needle pokes. It’d happened quickly, over a few months, it seemed, with the big ones. Then the smaller ones went as well. I wasn’t about to do what my friend Nikki did, sit in a hot bath for hours trying to raise a vein to the surface of her skin, or mess around forever stabbing myself a thousand times. Some junkies got all wack about the ritual of shooting up and would sit there playing with their dope and needles for hours. They were half-asses, part-timers, dilettantes. Minor leaguers. It wasn’t some gas-powered radio controlled model airplane, it was heroin. You do it, you get strung out, it ruins your life and you die. End of story. Get the drugs inside your body so you can get on to the next thing, even if it was just staring out the fucking window. Even if it was just dying.

I lifted up my pant leg and unwrapped the ace bandage from my calf, then removed the wad of soaked paper towels and tossed it onto the floor. The wound was about six inches long and three inches wide. It was deep. At first I’d used little veins in my calf, ones that didn’t take too long to find. But eventually, they’d gone too, and I began injecting the heroin right into the flesh, into the muscle. Not skin-popping, shooting with the tip of the needle just under the skin, but deeper. It wasn’t the same as hitting a vein, not by a long shot, but it did the trick. I felt it. First a black spot appeared under the skin, about the size of a quarter. Then the skin on the surface just sort of dissolved, peeled, melted away. I could rub it with my finger and it would just sluff off. Then the black flesh under that melted away as well and left a wound, a hole. I figured it was the high potency of the shots and all the crap they put in black tar heroin that caused the flesh to die.

The wound didn’t bleed, or hurt, it only oozed a liquid the color and consistency of olive oil. The heroin seemed to cauterize the flesh and kill the nerves, so I shot there again. I would have left it alone, moved to another place but I soon discovered that I felt the shot a lot stronger when I shot into the wound, almost as strong as before when I had veins. I figured it was all the tiny capillaries trying to repair the flesh that carried the heroin to my heart and then my head faster. And so it went. I continued shooting into the wound until it got bigger and deeper. It didn’t affect me at all, I watched the flesh dissolve away, as if driven by some weird desire that if I could just get to the center of myself I might be able to find out something about myself. I began trading for and gobbling antibiotics to keep the wounds from getting infected. It didn’t smell bad and it wasn’t draining pus, so no worries. I packed it with paper towels and wrapped it with an ace bandage to keep my pant leg from getting wet.

I went to stick the needle into the wound and it stuck. I let go of the syringe and it stayed there, wobbling. I got a firm grip on it, pulled back and it sprung free. I felt in the wound with my finger. I had noticed this hard lump in the wound before but hadn’t thought much of it. It didn’t look like bone, I thought maybe it was a tendon or something. There was a little edge that I could get a grip on with my fingers. It was sort of loose, and I moved it back and forth, then more rapidly, jiggling it.

Suddenly it came free with a sucking sound, like a stuck boot pulled out of the mud. I held it up and examined it. It was about two inches long and a half an inch wide, and looked like a little piece of rotten driftwood except it was blood red in places. One side was smooth and rounded, and the other was porous like a sponge. With a paper towel I rubbed it. I could still see red in places but now some of it was off-white. I was pretty sure it was bone. I sighed, and decided I had better find another place to shoot, the other calf, my buttocks, shoulders, something. But that would have to be next time. Right now I needed to get the heroin in me. I injected the shot into the wound, away from the area where I had pulled the bone fragment.

I placed the piece of bone in a little wooden treasure chest, the one I’d kept firecrackers in as a kid. A couple of days later I took it out and examined it. It had dried. I tied a string to it, made a necklace and wore it around my neck. A medal of honor. Something I had picked up on the battlefield. A trophy, a memento. A souvenir of the enemy.



Why another drug memoir?

Well, it wasn’t my idea, really. Other people encouraged me to write it. I’ve never been into memoirs or nonfiction much. I had reservations about memoir, that it was becoming the reality television of literature, that it was losing credibility, becoming not art, not literature, but just schlock. Bullshit. Garbage. But I began the project anyway, in the beginning partly to push back against that, you know? And then I received some encouragement and after a while it acquired a kind of momentum, especially after I figured out what I wanted it to be.


You wanted to prove your book wasn’t bullshit or garbage?

Yeah.


How did that work?

There was a process of elimination. The obvious thing would have been to do a journalistic document of a period in Seattle history, the Grunge thing, or an uplifting memoir of my personal struggle. But that sort of thing has been done before. So those were out. Of course, everything has been done before, but I wanted to find a fresh approach to the subject of drugs, heroin. That took a few years to get sorted out, while I fumbled around, eliminating one idea after another. At first I wanted to call it Dope Dealing for Dummies. I could have gotten away with it too, legally, framing it as an instruction manual on drug dealing, because the story ends badly, but the Dummies title is copyrighted, or trademarked or some such and I wouldn’t have been able to use it. Anyway, after I discovered how to approach the story, that’s when it took off.


It took off?

Yeah, once I began questioning the disease model of addiction and thinking about it as something more inevitable, or fatalistic, thinking about my addiction as a kind of slow death and my recovery as a painful resurrection. That might sound hyperbolic, and people look at me strange when I say it, but I was able to do that, and not deviate from the truth. Of course I wasn’t actually physically dead, but I was as close as one can come. I had totally given up on life, on living. I hadn’t seen that approach to an addiction story before. From the other books about drugs, you still don’t get an idea of how bad heroin addiction can be, the utter despair, how close one can be to death and how a person can welcome that and still go on for years and years. You really don’t. With any of the contemporary drug memoirs, you get the feeling that your reading something written by a person with something going on in their life besides drugs. You get the impression that the authors, the subjects, are and were alive, that they haven’t really, totally, given up. In terms of self-destruction, they were amateurs. David Carr’s book Night of The Gun for example is very interesting, the self-examination, the exploration on the subjectivity of memories, but really it’s about a journalist and family man who takes a little vacation into the drug world. American Junkie is exactly what it says it is, a story about a person who had no identity, who was unable to define himself, who had nothing to lose, a lost soul who made a home in a kind of dead place and stayed there for a long time.


It sounds depressing.

It is. It was. It’s a modern tragedy, more than anything else. It’s the story of all the junkies you don’t hear about, the ones that died alone in some shitty motel room. I certainly didn’t want to do what I call ‘the postmodern memoir,’ where I play the victim, where it’s all about my weird family and how it screwed me up. I didn’t get screwed up so much by any person, I got fucked by something more profound and eternal, my nature, my blood. But look, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. American Junkie isn’t all doom and gloom, there are some funny parts. And there’s some hope, because I survived. It has an element of survival literature to it, like Papillon, who spent twenty something years trying to escape Devil’s Island. The difference is that after a point I gave up and accepted my imprisonment to heroin. I had reached that point where the drugs didn’t work anymore, and found something there. Limbo, purgatory, Hell, call it what you want. The point is I wasn’t actively trying to escape it. That just sort of happened.


You got fucked by your blood?

One of my guiding lights when I write anything is what Nelson Algren said in the 50’s, “a writers duty is to give voice to the voiceless.” I mean, who’s more voiceless than the dead, right? All the real junkies are dead, the “people who died” as Jim Carroll would say. I was one of them. Somehow I didn’t go through that last door.


Have you had any response from readers?

Riveting, heartbreaking, devastating, those are words I’ve heard to describe it. Girls read it and cry and wanna give me a hug. And I’ve been told that the book is addictive, people open it and then they’re hooked. They can’t stop. That was unintentional. But I’m glad people are affected by it, ordinary people. That was intended. I definitely wanted to avoid it becoming pigeonholed as ‘outlaw literature’ so to speak. A book that simply ‘preaches to the choir,’ a book by a junkie for junkies, serves no real purpose. So far, it’s looking like I achieved that goal, men and women like it, as do booky people and non-booky people, forty-somethings and teenagers, people who have done drugs and those who haven’t.


Some famous Seattle rock stars are in your book. Why are their passages so brief?

Again, it has to do with the kind of non-existence I was experiencing. I didn’t really know them. I didn’t really know anyone, and no one knew me. I sold drugs. That was all. I had customers, not friends. I saw them for a few minutes at a time, they gave me money, I gave them drugs, we mumbled a few words, slurred, and that was it. To have those people take up a larger portion of the book would have been untrue in the broader context and on top of that sensational and exploitative. But I included those parts because they contributed to the story, because it highlighted a theme of the book, my lack of identity, and despite them being like me they at least were someone, and were able to call themselves something.


Why the flashbacks, the backstory? Why all the childhood stuff?

If you ask any true heroin addict, they’ll tell you that their addiction began long before they stuck that first needle into their arm. That’s what the backstory is all about, a self-examination where I try to find where my addiction began, how my life got so fucked, charting the events that changed my attitudes, the events that led me to the point where a kind of death was preferred over life. Charting the erosion of hope. How living in America and our culture contributed to it. Most addicts are predisposed to drug abuse, but all that means is that they’re on the fence, in the balance. They could go either way. At some point something, or an accumulation of somethings reach a tipping point and sends them down the wrong path. I wanted to explore the forces that pulled me off the fence, and then the wind that blew me over the wrong side of the tracks. It fascinated me because I didn’t have a particularly bad childhood, you know, the usual things, abuse and that shit people often point to as the cause of anti-social behavior. I just always had this immense aloneness that was like a steel bar inside me. And I wanted to see if I could find out why my addiction was so much worse than most.


You can’t possibly be the worst?

I stayed with heroin using and dealing even as my body was completely falling apart, even though I was obviously dying, because unlike most addicts, I wasn’t good at anything except selling dope. I wasn’t a writer, or family man, or father, son, anything, before the drugs. Sure, I was okay at playing music, but I was utterly unsuccessful with it, and a person can’t live in a vacuum. When you don’t have an identity and can’t define yourself by what you do, and you are not strong in yourself, you will cling to that one thing you are good at through Hell and high water, even if it’s destroying you, because otherwise it’s like you don’t even exist. That’s what this story has that other drug memoirs don’t.


Why did you include photocopies of documents, the newspaper articles, medical reports, etc?

I was halfway through the book when the James Frey scandal broke, and I just wanted there to be no question of the book’s truthfulness. So I dug up everything I could. I think some kind of documentation should be a requirement in nonfiction now, actually. Besides people making up these fantastic stories, memories are just so fallible. If a writer’s going to classify their story as nonfiction, as real, they should have to be able to prove it. Otherwise, just say it’s an autobiographical novel. Originally I got the idea from Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. She used her psych reports as a counterpoint to the narrator, another view to what she saw. But with me it was just about proof. Call me a cynic, but this is one of the problems with memoir in particular, an author is writing about themselves and that makes it highly vulnerable to spin. It’s insidious, omitting certain facts here and there, focusing on one aspect and ignoring another that paints a slightly different picture. It’s like reality TV, the subjects know they’re being filmed. The author is aiming his camera at himself. So I undertook this method where I wrote about myself as if I were writing about a stranger. I disconnected my ego from the process, as much as I could, without making things up.

Besides all that, I just thought people aren’t going to believe some of this unless I have some documented proof. You say you have a huge open wound on your leg and you’re pulling fragments of bone out of it and making them into a necklace–I’m just not gonna believe that unless I see something. Plus, the documents were necessary for me to reconstruct the story. There were 276 pages of hospital records, daily doctors’ notes, etc. I was in such a fog in the hospital that I never would have been able to recreate the timeline of events without them. Just like I had to interview dozens of people to reconstruct the other storyline, of my addiction and drug dealing. It was nonfiction, so I had to be accurate and truthful.


The ending is kind of ambiguous. Why did you decide to end the book there?

I have never really been into nonfiction. My influences, as far as style and theme came from novels, most of which were based for the most part on the author’s experiences, most of them more concerned with creating understanding for their characters rather than sympathy, most pretty bleak with depressing and/or ambiguous endings. I asked myself “Why can’t I do that? Do I have to follow this drug memoir formula?” I encountered some resistance about this, actually. When the big publishers in NY looked at American Junkie they loved it, but thought it was too bleak, too grim. They wanted the happy ending, they wanted me to find some redemption. I understand why. It has to do with a kind of escapism and simplicity that the public wants. Well you know what? It’s not that simple, it’s not black and white, drugs bad, recovery good. There is always the grey. I was a heroin addict and dealer for a long time. I found a degree of success doing it, money, status, stability, security. I found peace. That was the truth. And when I quit, it wasn’t like the sun came out for the first time in twenty years. I was in the hospital for six fucking months and came out a broken man, physically and emotionally, to an extent. There was no saccharine happy ending. I did permanent damage. There were lasting consequences. Besides being the truth, I felt it was the responsible thing to do. Apparently it wasn’t as uplifting as some people wanted, but they seem to have forgotten that the ending of nonfiction doesn’t have to be that way any more than a novel’s does. The catharsis a reader experiences when they finish a book, even nonfiction, doesn’t have to be all ‘happy shiny time,’ all it has to show is that the protagonist has turned a corner. Which I did.



I have been condemned. It’s okay. This is what happens. It was a long time coming. Actually, I don’t know how I eluded it for as long as I did. Luck, I guess. But I always knew that someday there would be a reckoning. I always sensed the day would come when I would have to pay. There are consequences to the things we do. This is just the way it is. Without them, it’s not life, it’s not real. We must suffer for our mistakes. For our crimes. This is the way it must be.  

I know how it all came about as well. I knew then. I’m not that ignorant. You’re young, and your heart aches. It won’t stop. You don’t know why. It just does. A drag here, a sip there, looking for a tiny bit of relief, something to dial down the furious turning of your mind, the relentless twisting. Trying to make sense of the contradictory emotions. All of it seems to accumulate in your soul. It becomes the depository for the pain. You try this and that. It turns out to be fruitless of course, and by the time you find out it’s far too late, but for so long it seems possible, to turn a mirage into something real. So you play with the salts, they fade, the half-life shorter and shorter, you start mixing this with that, waving your hands through the smoke.  

Eventually it stops working and still your heart aches. Your heart breaks. It breaks again. And again. You keep taking the drugs because you know it will happen again, and you just can’t bear it once more. You want to stop. But you can’t. It’s too late now. You try this, you try that, but every time the pain seems worse,  heavier, a dull heat somewhere inside, baking a part of you into something solid, a hard shell forming over your heart, fused with the flesh.

One day you wake up on a floor somewhere. You have nothing. Absolutely nothing. The illusions and delusions are gone. You see clearly. You feel like a fool. You’ve wasted so much time. You did. No one else. This is where you should stop. Find a way. Before it’s too late. Stare it down and start over. Shout. Scream. Yell for help. But you didn’t. You couldn’t. It was too terrifying to face. And you felt like a weak, useless, piece of trash for not being able to confront it, and begin anew. So you dig. You begin a tiny excavation, searching for the bottom. For years it goes on, miraculously, nothing happening but things changing hands, you sell and others buy, exchanging death sentences. Somehow it keeps the end at bay. Deeper, deeper, you go. You know that you are going the wrong way and you hate yourself for it. Your mind wants to stop and turn around. Your heart has dreams. But they were locked up now, out of the light, trapped inside the stone. It was your body that was in control now. Your body that was taking you down this horrible path. It was your flesh that caused this. It was the criminal. It must pay. Not for the crimes against society, and not by them either. You must punish yourself. For the real crimes, the inability to be what you wanted to be, what you thought you should be. For not being good enough, for not being strong enough. For not being able to love. For not being able to stop.

I must punish myself. No one else seemed willing to do it. I had to do something. I couldn’t blame it on anyone else. After all, it was I who had thrown my life away. It was I who’d broken the hearts and shattered the dreams of my loved ones, few though they were. It was I. The others, they found it within themselves to give me chance after chance. Try though I did, I could not take them. I felt undeserving. Maybe I have too much pride. Maybe, not enough. Did I deserve forgiveness? I don’t know.  It’s irrelevant now. There must be consequences or it would all be meaningless.

There was no trial. No lawyers, no courtroom. They weren’t needed. You knew you were guilty. And once you sentenced yourself, you knew what to do. Shot after shot, you carpet-bombed your flesh, until the highways were obliterated and all the trees turned to ash. Still, you kept on, wandering from place to place, burying land mines, planting pockets of black tar heroin, dope to be detonated at a later date. You buried them in the muscle, in the flesh. You dug deep. They did not dissipate and go away. They sat there like markings, give-aways, tattoos but deeper, of the thing you truly were. Black. Shapeless. Permanent, like ink. One day it will bubble up through your skin to the surface and someone will use it to write your fate on a scroll, to be read aloud in the public square on the day of your execution.

And now it is over. The sentence was real aloud and carried out. It was not as severe as I had expected, merely to live with the destruction. I have paid. Maybe, a little too much. Maybe, not enough. Only time will tell. I paid a pound of flesh from one side of my buttock, and another pound from the other. Just to be sure I took some from both arms and both calves as well, along with a few shards of bone for good measure. You always felt like an open wound, unprotected, vulnerable, and so it makes sense that is what you became. What remain now are scars, where the cavernous wounds once were. The things I will have to live with, fragile, delicate, ugly. Bloodless tissue, shiny like plastic. My hip is damaged, the bone dissolved from infection, one leg now shorter than the other and my hands don’t function correctly, the wires severed. This is my punishment. And yet it did not end me, as I had thought it would. I am still here, wondering why, and how.  Playing with words instead of smoke. Hammering with a hammer called hope, trying to break into my heart.

This is a Bag

By Tom Hansen

Writing

This is a bag.

This is a bag on drugs.

It’s that time of the month again. No, I haven’t had a sex change. It’s time for me to write something. Every month, they said. I don’t know what to write. Ever since I gave up poetry, and chose to pursue longer writing projects, my mind has gone blank when it comes to shorter writing projects. I suppose I could list my smartass facebook updates. In between the other stuff.

Tom Hansen is in line at Wal-Mart. With my little tent, drooling over tomorrow morning’s bargains. The parking lot is filled with Scummers. I have a couple PB&J sammies to tide me over. I hope I don’t get trampled.

I live in a cramped attic. It has a very low ceiling, just a few inches over my head. Very little headspace causes a kind of claustrophobia, I think. A kind of pressure. There’s about six feet of horizontal ceiling and then it begins to angle downward on both sides. I think it affects me. It confuses me. Is it a collapsing wall, or a pushed down ceiling? I can’t decide. I do know this; I don’t want to bang my head because it reminds me of a kind of music I hate. I live in fear.

Tom Hansen likes the ones that are a little dirty.

I know one more thing. I have a messy desk. On it right now are five hats, two empty coffee cups, a large bottle of hydrogen peroxide, three pairs of sunglasses, a screwdriver, a large regular candle, a big black skull-shaped candle, eight books (Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Chourmo and Solea by Jean-Claude Izzo, Paper Shadows by Wayson Choy, Whatever by Michel Houellebecq, Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Soderberg, and Lila Says by Chimo), a lamp, a flashlight (the power goes out here a lot), two ashtrays, four empty cigarette packs, one half empty cigarette pack, two light bulbs, three rags, a flash drive, a Zippo lighter, a Bic lighter, a bottle of Ronson Lighter Fuel, a bunch of blank cd’s, adidas deodorant, a pack of Bic Metal shavers, dozens of scraps of paper and countless letters I am terrified to open.

I write in an uncomfortable chair. I heard some writers spend thousands of dollars on their chairs. Henry Miller said he couldn’t write if he was comfortable. So maybe that’s good. I use an IBM X31 laptop to write on. My trusty little weapon. Most of the letters are worn off. There are bread crumbs and dust and dirt and shit in between the keys. Sometimes a key gets stuck and I have to push down hard and you can hear a crunching sound. I’ve been waiting for the laptop to die for two years now but it doesn’t want to apparently.

The next guy who has to use ten thousand words to order his coffee is gonna get it. Why do people have to regale their baristas with epic tales of their cute dog and his flourescent orange poop when there are a hundred desperate coffee junkies in line on the verge of collapse?

Here’s another thing I know. Nonfiction is tricky especially when you’re writing about yourself. You need to put your perceptions under the electron microscope. You are that frog you had to dissect in high school. Cut yourself open. Hold your nose.

Hey Joggers! Thanks for fucking my afternoon.

I know one more thing. But I forgot what it was.