My neighbor, a divorced PSA mechanic, who invites the children in and pours them draft beer to promote drug sales and his chances with the girls, offers me my first taste of methamphetine at age fifteen. He calls it “crank,” like the name of a car part or a grouchy old man. I’ve never snorted anything before. Crank looks nasty, like ant poison and pulverized glass, all chopped up on that mirror. Whiffing something straight up your nose into your brain seems a violation of human dignity and tastes even worse, like the dirt from a vacuum cleaner bag. I try not to cry the burning pain is so terrible. I am certain I will sneeze blood all over the curtains. I think I’ve done permanent damage. But then comes the drip drip drip, that bitter alkaloid savor with which the meth user learns to associate pleasure, and I wander around grinding my jaws and feeling like Bruce Lee grafted onto Aldous Huxley for about twelve hours. It takes three days to weather the most desiccated and noxiously enervated hangover I’ve ever experienced. I vow never to do it again — “never again never again,” the chant of the methhead. I do it eight or nine more times, and then as if God really loves me, crank vanishes from my neighborhood—and no one misses it.

Ten years later, dead broke, I come back to the old neighborhood to live with my parents for a few months, to write, as I explain it. I’ve quit school again. Seems that I’d learn one thing in college and that is that college is not for me. But I won’t be here long. I just want to put up the novel about the redneck chiropractor with the crystal ball, sell it hopefully, make a little cash, and start the talk show and interview circuit. Even though I’m sufficiently talented, I suspect that I should’ve finished school, gotten a degree, weaved some sort of safety net, just in case the novel doesn’t pan out, just in case I am a sham, but that seems gutless to me, even more gutless than coming back home to live with my parents.

This neighboorhood hasn’t changed much. Drawn out to thematic absurdity these small drafty plywood ranch-style homes, with their split rail fences, wagon wheels, dangling branding irons, and varnished cow skulls, remind me of the gaudy little shacks on miniature golf courses. Thrown up in a big hurry back in 1957, many owners have not made much effort, despite rocketing California real estate prices, to keep their sheds from becoming eyesores. I’m not surprised to see Muenschau and Coombs just where I left them, sitting in Muenschau’s old pickup truck, smoking homegrown and listening to Bob Dylan under the pepper tree. They wave at me, their eyes cheery slits. Howdy boys, I say. What’s new? Not a whole lot, I see. How’s the bass fishing? All right, just one toke, but then I gotta go…

Coombs, a runty blond with rusty hair and a sharp Adam’s apple, who I believe has some sort of undiagnosed form of Tourette’s, but is too poor, simple, and uninterested to do anything about it (until the last twenty out of a million years in human history our flaws, quirks, idiosyncracies, our “neurological disorders” were simply our “personalities”), grew up four houses down from me. I remember him in his baby carriage. I remember him catching me in the catwalk on the way to school one morning and going on and on about “the hounddog” until he showed me the Irish Setter that had hung itself by jumping still attached to its leash over a brick wall. Here he is ten years old drinking from a bottle of Ten High on the couch in a ramshackle gas-and-chicken-feather-smelling house piled high with furniture and trash, his mother in her muumuu glued to the telly. As I recall he began smoking pot in the second grade. A high school dropout, Coombs is inclined to violence and can often be disruptive and obscene. He has a variety of tics. He claps, hops, and hoots. He screeches, coughs, barks, spits, grunts, gurgles, clacks, hisses, whistles, coyote whoops, gives you the finger, wants to arm wrestle (he’s very strong) and finishes your sentence for you in a ghostly mumble that seems for a moment by his expression that he is reading your mind. Marijuana ameliorates his symptoms, turns his jerking, aggression, and swearing into squirming, repetitive questions, giggly blank stares, and an occasionally pithy observation such as why do people have hair?

Muenschau, twenty-nine, who lives on the next block over, is a slump-shouldered reed, his eyes Charlie Chan chinks in a Slavic face so thick it looks like a mask. His receding hair he wears also in the Chinese detective mode, ponytail down his back. I would estimate his IQ at somewhere around 70. Serene and steady as a tortoise, he hasn’t had a girlfriend since he was eighteen. He likes to sleep, smoke dope, and boat fish for bigmouth bass. Muenschau lives with his mother (his father died of cancer a few years ago), he’s never lived on his own

Coombs and Muenschau work in a chemical warehouse down on Logan Avenue in the barrio not far from downtown San Diego, and Muenschau’s cousin gets me a there too. Coombs and I are “parts pullers.” We’re handed a phoned-in requisition from a jobber, or parts retailer, and we fill a plastic crate with car wax, parts dip, Marvel Mystery Oil, fuel filters, brake fluid, engine starter, and the like, then pick up the next requisition. Muenschau delivers these “parts” to the various retailers. The days go by fast enough, though by the time I get home the sun is almost gone and I’m too tired to write. Still I don’t feel ready to sit down to serious composition quite yet. Physical labor feels good. I feel “real” again. I don’t have to ask Dad for money. The neighbors pound me fraternally on the back and I sit in their lawn chairs out in the driveway smelling the oil dripping from their Ford Rancheros and Dodge Darts and hoping the daughter comes out in her terry shorts as we lament as every generation of humanity since the advent of language the brevity of the days and the general decline of morality. And I’m writing all this down in my head, don’t you fret, it’s the Chemical Warehouse Novel, a real blue-collar gem.

After work I drink a beer or two, have dinner with my parents, watch or listen to the ballgame with my father, who has advanced himself to that insensate goal that he manages to score most every night. I scribble a note or two (Ramon drove the forklift, blades raised, into the second deck, lifting up Fram Country, it is high prairie now, foothills almost, and the wild sheep seem unsettled by the early snow). Then I am restless, loins astir, my warehouse muscles taut, my parched youth in need of a night’s slaking. I walk past the suburban windows with the warm life inside and often end up on the next street over where Muenschau and Coombs sit in the scented blue homegrown haze of Muenschau’s Ford cab. I slide in, open a beer, take a hit. We share the threads of our bottom-of–the-world tapestry, back orders, a busted vat of lethal parts dip, Barry pinned two ribs broken by a runaway pallet of Pennzoil. They’re content with work, sleep, dope, and Jack-in-the-Box. They have no fear or thought of dying and leaving nothing. Time is a sort of funny, irrelevant gas. Marijuana supplants the need for sex. Myself, I’ve got work to do, dreams to cash in. I can’t derail again. Even high, I know I’m running out of time. Pretty soon I’m going to start that novel. Martin Eden here I come. See you bright and early in the morning, fellows.

About this time Javier Medina, a heroin addict with fed pen time and gang activity also on his resume, makes a surprising re-appearance. Honestly I never thought I’d see him again. It’s been five years since he disappeared. But the news is he’s kicked. And he wants to start over and reenter this dispiriting suburban theater we call society. I have to say he looks good, like the old Javier, the track star, the varsity basketball player. And he’s got a tagalong heavyset Boston honey named Flora with messed up teeth who seems homey and solid, the kind of maternal influence a guy teetering on the brink might need. And I’ve always liked Javier. He has a nimble mind, loves to ad lib, he’s a fountain of jokes and odd expressions. I’ve soiled my garments! he cries. Or in a barker’s patter: What’s the difference between an epileptic oyster shucker and a prostitute with diarrhea? Standing over a charcoal grill he twirls his spatula and announces: if it’s smokin’ it’s cookin, if it’s burnin’ it’s done! He can quote Tom Waites by the ream. And though he appears to be a hard case, the sort of gnarled chap you’d expect to see snarling in a federal cage, squat with long arms, scarred hooked nose, that dark humor of Mayan rage in his eyes (and he’s so quick no one around here even thinks about fooling with him), I’ve never had a reason to dislike or distrust him.

All Javier needs now besides the power to resist, is a job. Not an easy task for an ex-heroin addict with a criminal record who hasn’t worked officially in three or four years. But the answer of course is the chemical warehouse. They’re always hiring. I put in a good word for him. And whether or not I’ve done him a favor, Javier is hired, and he throws himself into his work up there on the Fram deck all alone, works like an ox filling jobber crates with oil, air, and fuel filters. It’s hot and dusty up there. I started there myself. But there’s a satisfaction in working alone, in having the territory to yourself, and the work, at least weightwise, is pretty light. I christen him the Sheriff of Fram County, warn him of the rattlesnakes and the cold winters up there, the wild Indians and porcupines.

I don’t see Muenschau and Coombs much anymore since Javier arrived. They’ve moved out of the truck and spend their evenings indoors in the Medina home, an easier place to keep your beer cold, flat well-lit surfaces to roll your doobies, an address to have a pizza delivered, better speakers for your Moody Blues, and so on. Worries me a bit that they might be a bad influence on Javier, but Javier will have to weather stronger temptations than this, and he has known these boys all his life. He’s exactly Muenschau’s age. They went to school together every grade, until Muenschau fell behind and then eventually quit. I understand also that a little pot is probably a good thing. A man who kicks by himself, without methadone or 12-step or a personal psycho-safari-guide through the jungle, the man who can assert the staunchest independence, not only against addictive compounds but against the social institutions that turn us to addictive compounds in the first place, actually has a better statistical chance in the long run of staying chemically independent. I don’t entirely reject the methadone rationale. I tell myself it’s probably good that Javier has found himself a healthier substitute or at least some way to transition to the boring suburban existence that awaits him. As long as a needle doesn’t appear, what’s wrong with a little party? No one is telling the ex-junkie that he must wear a straightjacket and sit on a wooden pew reciting flower names for the rest of his life.

Muenschau and Coombs seem to be improved by their new relationship with our resurrected comrade. They seem more intent, hard working, focused, less trivial. Though they are smoking more, and seem suddenly concerned about such matters as the new shipping and receiving table and whether or not the NAPA order goes out on time, and they might even be a little rushed and even agitated at times, I find the change if not refreshing then at least interesting. I’m ignoring some obvious signals: the dilated pupils, grinding jaw muscles, constant sniffing, and those faraway looks like men in death-row card games (note also that Coombs Tourette’s symptoms have all but disappeared and Muenschau, as practically sexless as they come, has begun seriously talking about girls), but since I don’t see them much anymore I’m convinced that their new indoor life, perhaps some of Mama Flora’s navy beans with ham and homemade Boston cream pie, and the model progress of Javier has inspired them to some sort of temporary self-motivation.

After work one night I stroll down to the Medina house, open the gate, appease the affable golden pound-dogs Pancho and Claude, and knock on the door. Flora answers, her eyes lucent, her chin thrust aerodnynamically forward. Highly animated, a featherduster in her right hand, she seems flushed from exertion. By her reaction to me I might be her missing millionaire uncle. Hey man, she pants, shaking the feather duster at me. Come on in.

Oh, a party. Hello everyone. Get him a beer, Flora. I ease into the living room. Javier is drawn up barefoot in his recliner singing along with Dan Hicks “I Scare Myself.” Coombs leaned intently over the coffee table is slowly tearing the pages from a hot rod magazine. Muenschau smoking stoically in the rocking chair might be the Polish Marlboro Man. A nonentity named Flatmo who I went to high school with stands in the corner in leather jacket, long rat black hair sliced down the middle, a shimmer on his boots, jabbering intently with a girl I’ve never seen who has the ring-eyed aspect of a bandit. Flora has resumed her dusting of the hearth. Against the wall below a painted-by-numbers “Blue Boy” sits a nice looking girl, daffodil hair, serenely satin gray eyes, looks like Dawn Fairburn from long ago. It is Dawn Fairburn. My word, what are you doing here?

I’ve known Dawn since the second grade. She and I were much alike, scurvy outside children who scored high on tests and tried to pretend we weren’t smart so the other kids would like us. We almost went steady in fifth grade. Dawn had a bad skin problem and was rejected by the Allied Powers of Popularity. Then long about ninth grade she blossomed into Brigitte Bardot and left us all in the dust. The last time I saw her was at the Strand, the movie theater in Ocean Beach, but she barely acknowledged me, she was so radiant and thronged with admirers. I heard that she married the high school QB. I have a look around and wonder where young Joe might be.

Presently there’s a clack clack clack and Flatmo, emerged from his frothy entre nous with the bandit girl, taps the razor a last time and is handing across a mirror to Muenschau. The guests lean in as if Pavlov has rung a bell. Muenschau is all business, head tipped suddenly back, nostril clamped. Blood seems to fill his left eye. The silver platter floats to the next hand. Bowed heads jerk up with muffled anguish and then silent blinking at the ceiling, like some kind of devotional rite.

When the mirror comes around to me I stare into the smeared lines. I’d really thought that like smallpox and yellow fever this stuff had been sprayed into extinction. In all the places I’ve been in the last ten years I haven’t seen it or even heard it mentioned except by a pair of black-toothed biker-losers who were using it intravenously. A few vague memories trickle back through a general sense of misgiving. Dawn smiles at me, long lost beautiful Dawn with those uplifted Swedish eyes, the pleasant undulant mouth, the legs she knows just how to cross. The look says to me, go home if you want, you’d be stupid to stay, but of course if you do stay there are many things I’d like to tell you. Besides, it’s Friday. I realize she probably needs amateur psychological help. You can’t be doing lines of crystal meth all alone in the house of an ex-junkie if you’re happily married. I wonder if she remembers that time on the playground of Grover Cleveland Elementary after school when we were the only ones left after everyone made kites and we were still flying our kites and I was thinking about asking her to go steady with me. She seemed to be waiting for me to ask her to go steady, too, but I never did.

One line certainly won’t hurt, I think, and the gifted artist among his less-gifted peers cannot be a sissy pants down on the wharf. I bend to the task. Whoosh comes the flying insect killer up into my cranium, the caustic eye-watering flames, the feeling that I will bleed or go blind. It’s crank all right, the same blistering pestilence the PSA mechanic gave me when I was fifteen, changed in name only. Coombs to my right, restless as a cat, hunches over the mirror and rips whatever’s left off the glass, then fingers the corners and rubs his gums, as if the stuff is coke. I’d chide him, but it doesn’t matter does it? Sniffing back bitter drops I’m at ease for the first time in years. I’d forgotten this part: the stuff works on me—the same way it diffuses the majority of Coombs motor tics, praxias and lalias—like Ritalin (trade name for central nervous system stimulant methylphenidate) works on hyperactive children. I can’t explain how but it slows us both down somehow.

Overall the effect of this inhaled form of industrial-strength speed is Pentacostal Church Meets Hercules at the Beach. There’s a feeling like love, galactic in its proportions, blend in fulfillment, well-being, and above all potency, the sense that if you wanted to you could do anything, finish a novel, write a symphony, spin the couch with two people on it like a basketball on your fingertip, wallpaper the living room, find a girl settle down have a family, drive on up to Canada and sell all the belts you just tooled, anything, it’s just instead that you choose to stay here and talk with these wonderful people who share your dreams who are as loving and optimistic as you because after all they are your family. And the stuff isn’t like cocaine, it costs nothing and lasts for hours, days if you want; you’re not chained with a bunch of blithering bootlicking snufflers to endless hundred-dollar packets scared to death of tumbling off your high at any minute.

With robust leisure we devour from the carousel mirror. I feel like Sir Isaac Newton after seventeen cups of coffee. I am immortal and indestructible. While Coombs and Muenschau arm wrestle at the coffee table and Flora cleans behind the stove (say what you like about the scourge of methamphetamine in America but look at all the spotless kitchens!) I chain smoke, play ping pong, foosball in the garage, listen to records and speak authoritatively on all subjects, make jokes, play darts, play cards. I drink a case of beer, which has the same effect as water. Flatmo, the dealer, is cutting this stuff out free because he’s rich. That’s his BMW out front. You don’t see those kinds of cars in my neighborhood unless they belong to (and I don’t mean automobile) dealers. Funny he was a nothing for so long, a bug in a yellow corduroy jacket, not even enough to dislike. Now he can have three girls a night, four if he wants, take them all in a Lear jet to Newfoundland in the morning. Women love meth more than men (I mean that both ways), power and escape plus all the supermarket magazine promises: energy, weight loss (take thirty pounds off your fanny!), improved self-esteem, and increased sexual stamina.

Finally Dawn and I are out on the patio, cigarettes burning in our fingers. In her summer dress she’s a petite version of perfection, bronze legs, gold hair falling like coins, the mouth that pouts, those inquisitive brows (or brows that seem to say wouldn’t you like to know me a little better?). You know I’ve actually never talked to her except in the most modest of exchanges. She’s not exactly what I thought she’d be, she says “ain’t” and “don’t” for “isn’t” and “doesn’t,” the way most of these sons and daughters of machinists, punch press operators, navy captains, and firemen of this neighborhood, speak. That’s the way I speak too. We can’t betray our class, can’t appear to be snobs. She’s smart though, knows the difference between the famous German movie director and the novel by Saul Bellow. I wonder as I regard the luxuriance of that mouth, the glacial glimmer of those eyes, how she squandered her chance, why she isn’t studying international business at UCSD. I mean, you can leave this neighborhood, be successful, just when you come back don’t forget to say ain’t and don’t.

Her marriage has been dead for some time, she explains. A mistake to marry so young, to select such an obvious candidate, a man on his wedding day already slipping from his greatest achievement. Yes, he had scholarships to Cal and Utah State but he never even replied. The aging newlyweds are kind of messed up on meth, she admits, but on his party days he likes to hang with the boys, play darts for a weekend, go fishing and fall out of the boat, sizzle a football through the leprous mist and talk about that game against Lincoln when they were down by seventeen but came back to win it on a sixty-yard option with no time on the clock. And he’s probably sleeping with someone else. They stay together because it’s convenient, she says, because they don’t have that much money, because they don’t want to distress family members who are already perplexed by Ken and Barbie on the Rocks, and because in the diminishing middle of the constantly divided sum they don’t know what else to do.

I assume, not having seen meth in long-sequence action yet, that she describes a phase. It is a hard time in our mid-to-late twenties when we realize that we are not going to be movie stars, acclaimed bestsellers, or famous athletes as our childhood fantasies and our millions of hours of television watching dictated. Likely she assumed her captivating features would land her in a Breck ad or a Roman Polanski film, not the living room of an ex-heroin addict. I tell her I’m working on a novel. She says she plans on going back to school soon to get her teaching credentials. Our dreams seem not only accessible, close enough to touch, but completed. But it’s true, isn’t it? I mean if I weren’t out here (bladder swelling) leaning against the brick and chattering with an angel from my past I’d go home right now and type it up, be done with it, mail it off tomorrow.

 

God strike me with a urine-soaked newspaper if I ever do this drug again, the aftermath is simply unforgiving, a hangover infinitely more excruciating than alcohol, as if your nerves have been shaved by an asthmatic witchdoctor, pumped with mustard gas, and then stomped crookedly by a drunken plumber who refuses to scrape his boots. Unlike coke or heroin, there is nothing whatever subtle or romantic about this souped-up bathtub solvent concocted from the very items I move daily at the chemical warehouse, this industrial plague, which I believe Nature to keep her mortal quota has supplied in lieu of polio and cholera. There are good reasons no one writes songs about meth: the same reasons no one writes songs about polio and cholera.

I am back at Javier’s the next Friday. Amphetamines can be useful, I tell myself, a creative dynamo even. Think of Bob Fosse and Ayn Rand. For five years I was Howard Roark, the uncompromising architect hero in The Fountainhead, a novel that Rand wrote on amphetamines. And don’t you fret, if Ayn Rand can do it, I can too, my drugs are about twenty times stronger than hers.

Javier, Muenschau, Coombs, Flora, and I begin another two-and-a-half-day binge, which starts the moment we leave work on Friday afternoon. We stop and get plenty of cigarettes and beer. We take measures for reinforcements. I make provisions to visit my parents and appear to have slept. Like Nazis and religious fanatics, we escape into power. As many as twenty revelers might flow in and out of this Fiesta of the Damned, every one of them blighted, greasy, sniffling, ashen, babbling, molars wearing down, arteries hardening, heart straining, brain flickering, though the luminous diabolical deception inside, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, refuses to yield.

Parties for me have always been events where inebriation was requisite to relaxation but now with the meth I am the Effortless Me, amiable, witty, vibrant. Dawn and I find excuses to take walks, to chat on the patio. We volunteer for liquor store runs. We seem to have the most in common, or perhaps that is only another way of saying the most to lose. We fizzle into Sunday evening like the dead returning to Gomorrah.

Before long I’m frightened by these weekly binges, these accursed cycles against my will, these destructive cravings that have supplanted the fragile existence of everything I stand for, art and independence and the pleasure of family, evenly paced conversation, scratch cookin’, and sleeping in on Sunday morning. I’m starting to look haggard. The excitement I once reserved for my novel and women is now spent on the drug binge release and my blathering camaraderie. My head swarms with shadows and black flies, my vision with chips of mica. My novel and future have dissolved like the toxic dust in my lungs. Each time I peek over the ledge of that mirror heaped with oily piles of crystalline brain cleaner I try not to see the ravaged man with the inflamed nostrils and the dead-lit eyes.

Coombs has begun to dig at raw patches on his scalp where the hair is falling away. Though his Tourette’s symptoms have diminished they’ve been been replaced by a more sinister set of signals. He has, for example, stopped going to work half the time. We drive by to pick him up and he’s still asleep, sick he says. (Sick is right). Also he’s begun to discuss in detail the bane of all intelligent minds, Nostradamus and the prophecies of Edgar Cayce. Once a simple, playful soul, he’s inherited the dark burden of a goofed up planet trapped in time. He’s worrisome, not fun. He’s a self-medicated, self-made spook. Aren’t you concerned about your liver, man, I ask him, your heart, your brain? I don’t think about things that way, he answers. And when Coombs has to spend a weekend in observation because his Edgar Cayce infatuations have gotten too real, no one goes down to visit him. Frankly we’re a bit afraid, as if we might be waddling downtown to visit our own future. Anyway, he’ll be all right, he just has to lay off the powder a while, which he doesn’t.

The once plump Flora thinks her emaciation somehow appealing. Later she leaves for Boston for good because she is pregnant and knows a child would stand little chance of survival in our roller coaster off its tracks.Javier replaces her with a much more attractive, less housecleaning-oriented girl named Brenda, courtesy of Flatmo, and no one thinks much about Flora anymore. We don’t miss her at all, especially Javier.

Muenschau is having gum problems and suspects that his teeth are falling out, He has begun to date a sixteen-year-old-girl known affectionately and salaciously around the neighborhood as “Da Beef,” also a chronic meth user, leaves him to marry another much older man cross town (who by coincidence is a meth dealer, too), and Muenschau distraught and crying locks himself in the Medina bathroom refusing to come out. I wonder if he will cut his wrists or try to flush himself down the toilet. We think we might have to call someone, who? His mother perhaps? At last, after I confess to him seven rousing romantic failures (plenty more where that came from) he comes out mopping his eyes with his bony wrists and vows to quit drugs. Think of that snooze-bar life he once owned, slow smiling dreamy shake hands with everyone watch the same Twilight Zone over and over because you don’t remember it, catch a big glittering fish on Sunday now mama with roast beef on the table scattered like sheep shit in the hot Wyoming wind. Yes, he’s going to quit these awful drugs, go back to the gentle life where he can keep his teeth a while longer, he says, though he doesn’t quite make it.

Javier and I are the only ones who make it to work every day now. Granitelike and inexhaustible as Javier seems, he startles me sometimes because he appears to be shrinking, his face is turning to vellum, his hair is patched with gray. The trembling smirk on his face seems to say that his premature decay is not only intentional, but somehow funny. Sometimes he turns around and he looks fifty years old.

I don’t know how many weeks or months have gone by, but it’s Sunday night and Dawn’s got to get home. She hasn’t called her husband in two or three days. Doesn’t know if he’s been out all week partying, moved to Idaho, filed divorce, sold the house, gone off on a jaunt to Vegas because he’s heard LA Dodger pitcher Bob Welch is signing cards at the Stardust, or died on the rug from an overdose, but she must get home.

And I aim to get her there, see her safe, she’s practically my cousin we have the same grammar school blood in our veins the same unfinished dreams the same empty gift boxes littered across the floor, the same shame, the same disbelief. She’s starting to look rough, her teeth oxidized, hair desiccating, she’s skinny not thin, her nice little ass has shrunk to two apples in a paper bag, her once luminous skin is fading, glass-crack wrinkles are spreading from the corners of her eyes. She’s looking less like Brigitte Bardot and more like Ernest Hemingway every day. But do you think I care? My love is a loyal love, an indestructible super power love, you know if we would’ve gone steady in the fifth grade none of this probably would’ve ever happened…

Quacking and waddling, grinding and blinking away, we approach her house. It must be four in the morning, dead quiet, cool autumn verging on winter, moths tumbling around the lamps. He must be asleep, I say. Come inside, she says, reaching down to take my hand. I squeeze her fingers. The house is dark and smells sepulchral with loneliness. Young Joe is not dead, not here anyway.

Dawn and I are still holding hands. Let’s screw, she says. Christ, I thought it would be different somehow. OK, I say. Where? The guest room, she says. We sneak down the hall. The guest room has a bunny theme, a sewing machine, at least not a reaping machine. We kiss hotly with much tongue. She’s not for foreplay, ripping open my jeans, pulling my t-shirt over my head. I take down her costume and we kiss naked. She’s still wearing her socks. She’s very agile, not a shy girl, strong too, even if she’s lost ten pounds in the last four months, hasn’t eaten for two days, her eyes hollowing in their sockets. Amphetamine has the largely fraudulent reputation of a performance enhancer, but the one real pleasure left to us, the one desire not entirely supplanted by endorphins, we attack as if unleashing twelve Hoover Dam turbines. I believe we’re also exercising a form of desperation, the shoveling over of emptiness, the heated lunging chase after that answer beyond our grasp, but we leap across each other like chattering jackrabbits. Headboard clapping against the wall, the bed seems to swing, the sky seems to spin. This should’ve been my girl, I think. This should be my dream come true. I let go and listen for the front door. She reaches up to kiss me, eyes aglitter, and says: Where were you when I was thirteen?

Now with the “need” for Dawn the weekends have an added demon riding upon the serpent’s neck. We slip away, sneak off, staggering departures we leave early, make an excuse, find union in a car, in a park, on the cement pad behind the liquor store. Once we have it out in the dawn’s early light of some kind of ridiculous leafless bush. Every effect of this graceless union conspires to make me ill. But this drug drives me to frenzy, pushes every last raw sin to the tips of my tensile nerves. I’m electric with desire. I’m a boulder of a cock. She’s a lake of wetness, arched up, watching me slide into her, her front teeth pushed forward, her eyes as if switched off. And then we’re whamming and slamming, the bush rattling and she’s moaning and I have to cover her mouth. I wonder what we must look like crashing into each other in this skeleton of a bush, two skinny blue apes, two corpses? I want to get this over with. The sun is coming up. I’m not going to do this again. Is that all I ever say? But I’m not. I’m going to run away. I’m going to go someplace where no one will find me. I know I will be the same person, but I’ll run again, and then eventually I’ll get old and desire will fade and then I can live in peace.

My reprieve comes in the form of a phone call in February. An old friend who I cooked with in Colorado has just graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and has landed his first job as a chef in the dying city of Niagara Falls, New York. He can’t find any decent cooks. Would I like to come out and help him? If I could reach down through the phone wires I would hug him. He has no idea how he has saved me, though of course he hasn’t.

One last night together, drunk and cranked up (the last time, I really mean it), Dawn kisses me violently, stares into my eyes. I’ll come with you, she says.

Hungover on the plane it is winter, the cities below are icy and gray, and I have this picture in my head of a scurvy, outside girl flying a kite all alone on an elementary school playground.

That winter Flatmo is arrested again (manufacturing, possession with intent to sell), sent up to do several years of federal time. Paroled early, his “friends” vanished, his money and sports cars gone, he returns ironically to the only place he can get a job, the chemical warehouse, where he settles back into his high school role of nonentity and a room in National City overlooking the shipyard.

Over the next few years I hear that Muenchau has moved on, has been kicked out, has married a woman twice his age who physically abuses him, and then the last time I hear about him his cousin, who got me the job at the chemical warehouse, tells me that Muenschau is living alone in a shack with a hundred cats and that his hands are “registered weapons.”

Javier loses everything (isn’t that the idea, but wait, just a blast of this and I’m back on top again, heh heh). His parents give up on him. I lose track of him completely, imagine if he isn’t dead he has returned to prison. Then one day I see him at a 7-11 in El Cajon (the meth capital of the world at the time), shoving a twelve-pack of Busch onto the counter. I don’t recognize him at first. He smiles at me, weak chagrin. My God, Javier. He’s thirty-six years old, a shriveled, ruined old man.

 

 

 

At some point, I found myself at the motel.

I stood in front of the blinking neon tubes that outlined the shape of the flamingo on the motel’s sign: The Flamingo Motel in Roswell, New Mexico. A few years earlier, my mom had told me a story about this motel.

“I remember once when I was a teenager,” she said as we drove past the broken down adobe structure, “I was walking down the street and right there – right in front of that sign – I saw a spaceship. It was up in the sky, not far, and perfectly clear. I was scared.”

“Really?” I asked, excited. “Were you alone? What was going on?”

She wrinkled her forehead, concentrating. “I may have been on acid,” she said.

I was sitting on the front steps reading, within ear but not eyeshot of the driveway, when I heard my mother talking to a woman with a slightly-crude voice. I thought it might be the woman who lives next door. I’ve never met her, but I know her husband, Al. He regularly drinks Natural Light beer with his shirt off in the middle of the day, so it’s fair to assume he’s married to a woman with a slightly-crude voice.

The woman asked if she was at 85 Joalco Road.My mother confirmed this, and then the woman explained she was here to administer an interview on behalf of the United States Public Health Service, that my brother, whom she referred to as “the 21 year old male,” had been randomly selected for the study and stood to earn $30 should he participate. She wanted to know when the 21-year old male would be home, because she had quotas to meet with regard to particular demographics.

“Too bad you couldn’t pick my other son. He’s a 28 year old male and he’s home right now,” said my mother.

When she said this, I decided not to stand up and have a look at the woman with the slightly crude voice, even though I very much wanted to. It occurred to me that the interviewer and I could help each other out, seeing as she has quotas to meet and I’m broke, unemployed and living with my parents.

But being broke and unemployed at your parents’ house isn’t all that bad. You get to do things like walkaround in a bathrobe outside at 10 a.m. bird watching and drinking coffee.

That is what I’m doing when a navy blue Jeep Cherokee pulls into the driveway. A woman gets out, smiles, and says, “You must be the 21 year old male.I spoke with your mom the other day.”

She doesn’t look the way I imagined her to, which was short, older and graying. Rather, she is tallish, oldish, dyed too-auburn.

“Yeah, she told me about you. You’re in luck. You caught me on my day off,” I say, opening the gate to let her in. “What a morning.”

It’s about 70 degrees. The birds are giving their morning recital. Early daylight spills over the top of early-spring-green leaves. Bands of clouds drift lazily overhead on the slightest of breezes.

We decide to work outside at the picnic table. I quickly go inside and pour myself a fresh cup of coffee then take a seat across from the stranger.

“Where do you live?” I ask her.

“Middleton,” she answers.

“I’m not sure where that is exactly. Near Concord?”

“Not really. It’s next to Farmington.”

Farmington is a very sleazy town, so Middleton is probably at least a little bit sleazy by association. I wouldn’t say this woman is sleazy, but there is a hint of sleaze. The voice…the dye job…the pack of Virginia Slims menthol extra long 120s…

“Do you work for the census department?” I ask.

“No, I work for a company subcontracted by the government,” she says and hands me a brochure.

The cover says: National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Answering your important questions. I open it up and read the first page:

What is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)?

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is the Federal Government’s primary source of national data on the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit substances. The survey also contains questions on health, illegal behaviors, and other topics associated with substance use. The study was initiated in 1971 and currently is conducted on an annual basis. This year approximately 70,000 individuals, 12 years and older, will be randomly selected and asked to voluntarily participate.

The woman finishes setting up a computer and some papers and explains that the interview will take about an hour, the bulk of which will be completed anonymously on a laptop and afterwards, she’ll ask me a few questions.

She then asks me my date of birth.I take a long sip of coffee, hurrying to calculate the year my brother was born.

“You stated your birthday as October 3, 1987, making you a 22 year old male.Is this correct?”

She has to say this according to protocol, but obviously it’s not correct because I am a 21 year old male.I fix my mistake, hastily adding the excuse that I suffer from dyslexia.

“I’m just awful with numbers.” I say.

She gives a half-laugh, half-sympathetic sigh and at this point I highly suspect she knows that I don’t have dyslexia…that I am not, in fact, a 21 year old male, but rather, the 28 year old male my mother mentioned.

“OK,” she says. “Ready to begin?”

And so, on a perfect Wednesday morning, outside at the picnic table, in the presence of a complete stranger, using a slate grey laptop, I anonymously reveal my entire history of personal drug use.

I thought I’d tried most things.I was wrong.There’s a book I have to look through and answer things like list all of the drugs from Box A you have tried in:

A.the last 3 months

B.the last 6 months

C.The last year

D.At any point

The boxes are divided by drug category, such as opiates, hallucinogens, amphetamines, sedatives, etc, all with an accompanying photo and ID number.Every drug imaginable is listed.There are a lot that I’ve done.But also many I’ve not done…or even heard of.

I take mental notes of the drugs I’d like to try.It’s like the feature on iTunes when you’re searching for a band and they show you what Other Listeners Bought.Well, I love amphetamines, so I’ll probably like lisdexamfetamine as well…and all the other drugs in Box C for that matter.

It all reminds me of the D.A.R.E . (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which most Americans over the age of 27 probably were forced to take part in.Like D.A.R.E., this survey is opening my eyes to all sorts of wonderful substances.

I recall the first day of D.A.R.E. distinctly.The entire 5th grade gathered in the library and a police officer came in with a display board containing illustrations of all these different drugs and explained how they had horrible side-effects and we should never even consider trying them.The cop told the story of a man who, in a PCP rage, took 18 rounds from police officers before going down.

As a 5th grade boy, I figured if I could get my hands on this PCP stuff…well, I could rule the neighborhood.Nobody would fuck with me.

The D.A.R.E. curriculum consisted largely of role-playing where, in a typical scenario, one student played the drug dealer and another an abstaining youth who employed the proper version of “Just Say No” to reject the dealer’s advances.

Not once in my adult life has a drug dealer materialized out of thin air and tried to push their goods on me like in D.A.R.E.There were plenty of times I wish they would have, but to no avail.The closest I’ve gotten is in tourist hot spots where drug dealers whisper, “marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy” as you pass by.As an 18 year old in London, I tried to buy weed from one of these guys and ended up with oregano.Since then, I’ve learned you don’t buy shit from drug dealers on the street in an unfamiliar area.You go to a university area and ask around at bars.

Back in the 5th grade, I even starred in the D.A.R.E. play, which was the culmination of the ten week program. I can’t recall much about the production, except that I had a lead role.The character I played, due to some unholy cocktail of substances, collapsed.My line was “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” (That’s right-Steve Urkel style.)

Between then and now I’ve done a lot of drugs and never once have I fallen and been unable to get up. Quite the opposite: When I get up, I don’t want to fall down.

Drug Abuse Resistance Education was started by members of the Los Angeles Police in 1983.Today, 36 million children around the world and 26 million in the U.S. participate.

Over the years, a number of studies have been conducted to ascertain the efficacy of D.A.R.E.Some particularly interesting findings include a 1992 Indiana University study that found students who completed D.A.R.E. used hallucinogenic drugs at a higher rate than students who didn’t enroll in the program.In 1998, Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum reported D.A.R.E. graduates were more likely than non-graduates to use alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.Also in 1998, Psychologist Dr. William Colson claimed that exposing young students to drugs encouraged and nurtured drug use.He wrote: “…as they get a little older, students become very curious about these drugs they’ve learned about from police officers.”

In 2001, the Surgeon General of the United States placed D.A.R.E. in the category: “Does Not Work.”The Association for Psychological Sciences (APS) put D.A.R.E. on a list of treatments that can potentially harm clients in 2007.

D.A.R.E. reflects the U.S. drug control policy of zero-tolerance.It was adopted as part of the control strategy of the U.S. government’s War on Drugs.Last year, Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, stated the Obama administration would not use the term “War on Drugs,” claiming it to be counter-productive.

After 40 years, $1 trillion dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, it seems the War on Drugs is counter-productive not only in name.Comments by Mr. Kerlikowske suggest as much.

“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful” he told the Associated Press recently.“Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

This month, President Obama made a pledge to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” through a revamped policy that treats drug use as a public health issue, focusing on prevention and treatment.Despite his promise, the president has increased spending on drug prohibition through law enforcement, which accounts for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget, a record in total dollars and as a percentage of the drug-control budget.Obama’s drug-fighting budget is 31 times what Richard Nixon’s was (including inflation adjustment) after he signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1971, which effectively began the War on Drugs.

The Associated Press has tracked how taxpayer money has been spent to combat drug use over the past 40 years.Here’s what we’ve been billed for:

  • $20 billion to combat drug gangs in countries like Columbia and Mexico.Annually, 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the U.S.Almost all of it is imported from Mexico.
  • $33 billion to promote prohibition-style “Just Say No” messages and prevention programs (like D.A.R.E.)to young Americans.Reports indicate that high school students today use drugs at the same rates they did in 1970.
  • $49 billion for enforcement measures along America’s borders to halt the flow of illegal drugs.This year alone, 25 million Americans will use illicit drugs, around 10 million more than in 1970.Almost all of it comes in across the borders.
  • $121 billion to arrest over 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, roughly 10 million of them for possession of marijuana.Studies reveal being locked up has a positive correlation with drug abuse.
  • $ 450 billion to lock up these nonviolent drug offenders in federal prisons alone.Half of all federal prisoners last year in the U.S. were incarcerated for drug offenses.
  • $215 billion per year, estimated by the Justice Department, for “an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity and environmental destruction.”

And I thought I’d spent a lot of money on drugs and had nothing to show for it.

When I’m done with the computer the interviewer asks me a few questions about my employment, insurance, household income, etc., and then we’re done.I sign an interview payment receipt and the woman counts out 3 crisp 10s and lays them in my hand.My time as a 21 year old male is officially over.

I walk the interviewer to the gate and wish her well.

“What an interesting job you have…traveling to people’s homes, setting your own hours.” I say.

“Yes, I enjoy it.” she says.“I get to meet many interesting people.The only thing is that if I ever run into somebody in town or at the grocery store or something, I don’t know their name.”

“Well, if I ever see you, just call me 21 year old male.” I say

It’s now around 11 o’clock, giving me five hours before my mother comes home.I should probably go fill out some job applications.But it’s an awfully nice day.And I’ve got a lot on my mind.

Had I taken D.A.R.E. more seriously and never used drugs, would I be a broke, unemployed 28 year old male living at home?

If the War on Drugs has failed, then who is the victor?Drugs?Drug dealers? Drug users?

What, precisely, is implicit in the reality that America has 5% of the world’s population but uses 50% of its illegal drugs…and has 25% of its prisoners?

Is Middleton a sleazy town?

Such matters deserve a deeper consideration.

But I’m all out of weed.I have no car.And unlike in D.A.R.E., drug dealers don’t just materialize while you’re walking down the street.Especially not on Joalco Road in Strafford, New Hampshire.

Besides, while drug use rates haven’t changed much after 40 years and $1 trillion spent, the prices have.I’ll be lucky to get a few joints from $30 of today’s hydroponic shit.As a generation of D.A.R.E. – mockers know: Drugs Are Really Expensive.

But there are other options.

I hear Al whistling from his porch.His shirt is off.There’s a koozy on the railing.

“Yo Al, I’m comin’ over buddy.You owe me from last time.”

Six Chambers

By Matthew Baldwin

Essay

On a late spring day in 2001 my sister’s drug-dealing ex-boyfriend crashed the pool party she was throwing at our house in the suburbs and shot two people on our front porch. He used a small, snub-nosed revolver from a distance of less than ten feet, firing off all six rounds. Five of them hit their mark.

This isn’t my story. I wasn’t even there; I was in the final year of my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Riverside, living in my own apartment and diligently working on my senior thesis. I’ve struggled to tell it before, as fiction, in poetry, by inserting myself into the narrative as a character, but it felt disingenuous then, and it feels disingenuous now. I don’t even know most of the people involved, and what details I have stem from one or two eyewitness accounts and a brief glimpse at the police report. And yet, even though I wasn’t present for these events, I cannot deny they’ve had an effect on me.

I will try to tell it as best I can.

*****

What I know is this: Daniel and my sister had been broken up for a few weeks, and he was having so much trouble letting go she was forced to get a restraining order. He turned up at the house drunk, and very likely tweaking on crystal meth as well. Accounts conflict as to whether the gun was hidden in the waistband of his jeans or the back pocket, but whatever his intentions were when he let himself into the empty house, he came packing. He wandered through to the backyard, where twenty or so of my sister’s friends had been drinking cheap beer and doing cannonballs off our diving board for a few hours, and immediately got into a shouting match with my sister. I don’t know what was said exactly, but I do know that when Daniel refused to leave several of the guys at the party took it upon themselves to escort him back out front, using their presence as a crowd to shepherd him. At first it worked; he went willingly, if begrudgingly.

No one thought to call the police.

When they made it to the front yard things changed. Maybe someone said something to provoke him, maybe some faulty synapse in his little tweaker brain misfired, but whatever the reason Daniel went on the offensive, drawing the gun and threatening the crowd with it, even though he had a clear path of escape to his truck.

Alcohol and adrenaline combined create a potent brew for stupidity, and after a second or so of shocked paralysis, one of the partygoers decided to do an extremely brave and absolutely foolish thing: he launched himself forward in an attempt at a flying tackle, but being drunk, only managed to stumble and get Daniel around the ankles.

Daniel shot him four times at point-blank range, opening up angry red blossoms in his chest, stomach, pelvis and thigh. He then fired the last two rounds into the crowd, apparently at random. One shot struck someone in the forehead, but the thick bone deflected the bullet sideways instead of allowing it to pass through. It opened up the skin of his right temple like a seam, right down to the skull. He was concussed and bleeding badly, but alive. Before anyone could do anything else, the now-unarmed Daniel fled in his truck.

My sister’s girlfriends kept her hidden in the house while this went down, and I think it was one of them who finally decided that calling for emergency services might be a good idea.

The aftermath was—perhaps unavoidably—anticlimactic. Both victims survived their injuries, though the first one spent the better part of the week in the ICU. When the police searched Daniel’s apartment, they found no sign of his drug activities aside from a misdemeanor amount of marijuana (he likely went straight there after the shooting and cleaned everything out; I would’ve). After two days as a wanted man Daniel surrendered to the police, and because he’s half Mexican and a fluent Spanish speaker, he was considered a high flight risk and denied bail by the court. It was months before the case went to trial, and when it did Daniel got off with a slap on the wrist; since he plead guilty to a charge of attempted manslaughter, had been a model inmate in the county lockup, and hadn’t actually killed anyone, the judge sentenced him to a couple of year’s probation, with credit for time already served. He walked, though the restraining order remained in effect.

The blood of the two shooting victims left stains on the pavement of our porch and front walkway.

We never figured out where that sixth bullet went.

*****

I look at these words here, that I’ve written and rewritten, and I don’t know what to make of them. I do not know how to respond to the knowledge that this happened, that this violence brought itself to our very doorstep to further mar the home where I spent the majority of my childhood, even though by that point I was already gone, having deliberately distanced myself from the unhappiness that already resided there.

What they don’t tell you about a gunshot is that the impact doesn’t just strike in the here and now, it ripples backwards in time to damage the past. A bullet wounds not only flesh, but memory as well.

None of us live there anymore. Once her divorce from my stepfather was final my mother sold the house, and she and my sister found new places to live. I finished my degree in Riverside and moved to New Orleans for graduate school. But the karate studio I teach at now is in the same neighborhood, and from time to time I pass by the house. When I do this is always the first thing I think of.

It’s the damndest thing. As I say, I wasn’t there, and yet the mind is a tricky machine; it combines this information with the knowledge I already possess to create the synthesis of a memory, one that I can turn and walk through, moment by moment, room by room. I know the exact path Daniel walked from our front door to the back. Though I didn’t know any of my sister’s friends at the time (she and I have always sailed different social seas), I knew the kind of people she hung out with, and my imagination fills in the details: their baggy shorts and sideways ball caps, cans of Bud Lite and crumpled packets of Marlboros. I know the crack of the shots and the smell of cordite; I’ve seen gunshot wounds up close and personal, and will never again require my imagination to recreate them.

By happenstance, I was in town that weekend, taking a brief respite from the rigors of my thesis by attending a friend’s barbeque. I first learned about the shooting when the ten o’clock news ran a report on it. The reporter stood just down the street from our house, but out of the corner of the frame you could see the yellow police tape marking off our lawn. I remember feeling a riot of emotions when I saw that: fear, anger, worry, and even guilt that I hadn’t been there to do something about it.

But not surprise.

I think I’d been expecting something like this to happen for a long time.

I met Daniel once or twice, and wasn’t impressed. When we were in high school my sister’s taste in boyfriends always ran towards bad boys, the kinds of knuckle-dragging aggro meatheads who spent their spare time either in detention or on the lookout for things to stuff firecrackers into and watch explode, and Daniel was no exception. It was only a matter of time before one of these troglodytes engaged in some spectacular criminal violence.

No one knew about the drug dealing, though; my sister took pains to hide that from us, even after they’d broken up. She also hid his fondness for firearms. I’ve thought about that gun a lot during my attempts to write this. I cannot imagine what Daniel was planning on doing with it. It would be too easy to write it off as junky behavior, but I think that’s a fallacy. High or not, he had the foresight to load it, bring it, and to conceal it when he came inside. Was he intending to force my sister to take him back at gunpoint? Did he anticipate a shootout with some of the other people at the party? My sister had told him about my martial arts training–was one of those rounds meant for me, in case I was there and caused him trouble?

I don’t know. I doubt I ever will.

One thing I can say, though, is that this episode forever ended any infatuation I had with firearms. I’m not looking to overturn the Second Amendment or outlaw the NRA, but I sure as shit don’t want a gun anywhere near me. I refuse to allow them into my home, and any invitation to go down to a gun range and fire off a few rounds is met with a firm “no, thanks.” And I reject, whole cloth, the entire notion that they are in some way “for defense.” The act of penetrating a human body with explosively-propelled bits of metal is designed to be fatal, and there is nothing defensive about that. As far as I am concerned, a gun is the unearned power to take the life of another human being, available for purchase far, far too cheaply.

We’ve reached the end here, and I still don’t know what to make of this. I don’t know how to articulate the emotions this stirs up. I’m angry, and I want to be angry, I believe this anger is deserved, but I do not know where to direct it. My sister, for all her lapses in judgment, did everything in her power to push Daniel out of her life, and it isn’t her fault he clawed his way back in. Daniel has long since disappeared; if there’s any justice in the world he was picked up for another violation and is now doing time. I suppose this could be thought of as a warning, about how we sometimes invite those people most dangerous to us into the innermost areas of our lives, even though–because–we know they might very well cause us harm. We’re moths in a world of candle flames.

But that doesn’t really help. I’m still angry. Angry because, eight years on, those bloodstains are still there, enduring all of the effects of time and weather, of bleach and scrub brush.

And in my mind, they always will be.