I get to the office at 7:42, even though Jack told me to be there at 8:00. In spite of what people might think, junkies like to be early. You learn not to keep people waiting when they have something you need.
Jack said maybe he could hire me back, help me get back on my feet. Back on my feet – now that’s a strange expression. I feel like I’m always on my feet, pacing, walking. I hate sitting down.
Maybe it will help. Maybe after I get a job, I’ll be able to straighten everything else out.
I stand out front, smoking a cigarette until I see his Benz pull up. His eyes flicker in my direction as he unbuckles his seatbelt, but he doesn’t acknowledge me until he’s standing about two feet away.
“Hi James,” he says.
“Hey,” I say, reaching to shake his hand. “Thanks for meeting me.”
“Sure, sure. Come on inside, and we’ll talk.”
I follow him into the building and through the main room. The desks are all empty, the phones sitting neatly on the receivers. The telemarketers don’t start their calls until 8:30.
Jack sits behind his desk and motions for me to sit in one of the folding metal chairs across from him. I sit and wait for him to say something, but he just looks at me, so I figure I better go first.
“So, man, I really appreciate you talking to me. I’m really hoping you can help me out with a job.”
“Well, James, I would like to. Are you clean?”
Jack doesn’t like to waste words.
“Yeah, I got like ten days,” I say. Actually, it’s been less than ten hours since I last shot up.
He looks at me like he knows I’m lying. “And what’s different this time?”
I’ve known Jack for three years, ever since he hired me as a telemarketer. Jack makes pens that have company names printed on them, like the ones at insurance offices or maybe the dentist. I did so well in the first year of working for him that he opened a new office in Temecula and made me the manager. I ran the whole thing, hired people, managed people, fired people. All this while I was using. It was great. I was making enough to buy all the heroin I needed, so the drugs were never a problem. I was a fully functional addict.
There were only a few days when I couldn’t wait until 5:00. One of these days was when I found out Justine was sick. She had ovarian cancer. She was twenty-fucking-three years old.
I went in the bathroom to shoot up. Not a lot – just enough to take the edge off. I hit a vein, though, and blood spurted in a fine line onto the wall. Of course I was going to clean that shit up, but that just happened to be the day that Jack’s wife stopped by the office to use the bathroom. So she walked in and saw me wiping blood off the wall with a brown paper towel. That was when Jack fired me.
Now it’s been seven months. I called Jack and told him I was trying to get my act together.
What’s different this time? That is the million-dollar question. If I could answer that, I could probably stay clean.
The sound system kicks on without warning. “The First Noel” pours out of the speaker above my head, and I jump a little. I forgot that it’s automatic. Jack plays music to keep us, I mean the sellers, relaxed. I never paid any attention to the music, though. I always felt calm. I was the top seller by over five grand each month. I could sell sexy to Angelina Jolie if I had to.
“This time I know I can stay clean. I’m doing it for myself, man. Myself and my parents. They’re old now. I don’t want to hurt them anymore.”
He doesn’t take his eyes off me. For a hellish moment I think he is going to ask me about Justine, and I think, Not that, please, anything else, I can’t talk about her. Then I realize my fears are ridiculous. How would he even know about what happened to my sister?
“Alright, James,” he says. “I’m going to give you another chance. You can start tomorrow. But listen, this is it. No fucking around, no messing up. If it looks like you’re using, that’s it.”
I nod. “Thank you, thank you. I won’t fuck this up, man. I swear.”
As I walk down the street to catch the bus, I think about what I told Jack, about my parents. And I meant it. They are old. My dad’s retired because he had a stroke two years ago, and now his hands shake so much that he can't even light his own cigarettes. My mom still works as a cleaning lady at a hospital. She’s 62. Whenever I see her come home, so tired that she falls asleep on the couch watching TV, I think, That should be me working, supporting her. Not the other way around.
I can do it. It’s been about eleven hours now since my last hit, and already, I’m itching for another. But today is the perfect day to get clean. I have a job, a chance to make everything up. You can do this, I tell myself all the way to the Second Street bus stop.
It’s still early, so I decide to see if my friend Shaun is up. He lives in the same apartments as me and my parents. I knock on his door and he answers with no shirt on.
“Hey, Stoli!” Stoli is what everyone has called me for the last six years, ever since I got really drunk on Vodka one night at a bonfire and ended up waist deep in Mission Bay, imitating Winston Churchill. “What’s up?” He swings the door open and I get a whiff of marijuana.
“Started early today, huh?” I say, walking past him. His girlfriend Deedee is sitting on the couch taking a hit from the bong. The gurgling sound competes with the cartoon voices from the TV.
“You want some?” she offers.
I do. It might take the edge off what’s coming, if I’m really going to try to kick today. But I say, “Nah, not right now,” and instead I light a cigarette.
“Whatever.” She's wearing a low-cut top, exposing a decent rack. Deedee would be pretty if it weren't for the pockmarks all over her face.
“Hey, I’m meeting Chris for breakfast," Shaun says. "You want to come with me?” Chris is his sponsor.
“I don’t have any money,” I say. The truth is, I have ten dollars in my pocket, but I need to hold on to it, just in case. It’s not enough to get to my fix, but it’s a lot easier to scrape together ten more dollars than it will be to get the whole twenty if I need it later.
“It’s cool, man, I got you. Just let me change," he says and heads into the other room.
Shaun gave up H about two years ago and acts kind of self-righteous about it. He’s always trying to get me to go to NA with him. He did some pretty messed up shit when he was using. Like, once he and his girlfriend Deedee were so hard up that he told their dealer that Deedee would suck his dick for a bag. The dealer told him that he didn’t want that nasty ho to blow him, but Shaun could. And Shaun fucking did it. No matter how desperate I’ve been, I’ve never sucked a guy’s dick to score.
Deedee hits the bong again and says, “You sure you don’t want any?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” I don’t even think of pot as a real drug, so I don’t know why I think I shouldn’t do it today. But it makes me hopeful, like maybe I really can get clean.
Shaun comes back in wearing a wife-beater and a black beanie. Then we walk to Denny’s since it’s only a half a mile away. That’s one benefit of living in the shitty part of El Cajon. Everything’s close by.
Chris is already sitting down in a booth when Shaun and I walk into Denny’s. He’s drinking coffee.
Addicts and their fucking coffee, I think. When I was in rehab, it was kind of a joke that we all had. It’s like getting clean just means that you give up illegal drugs for legal ones: caffeine and nicotine.
I’ve only met Chris a few times before, but he gets up to give me a hug, and it’s a real hug, too, not one of those awkward, one-armed deals. He wraps both his arms around me and squeezes until I feel like my ribs are going to break.
I try to think of the last time someone hugged me, and I can’t remember.
We slide into the booth. I order a coffee and a Grand Slam breakfast. I don’t actually feel that hungry, but I know Shaun is buying, and I don’t get to eat in restaurants that often. It’s nice to have someone take my order and pour my coffee. It makes me feel more dignified somehow.
“Hey, you want some coffee with that sugar?” Chris asks me. I look down at the torn packets on the table and see that I’ve put in four. I usually have six or seven, but I feel self-conscious now. I only add one more.
“So,” Chris says, looking at Shaun now. “Everything cool? Do you need to talk about anything?”
“No, not really.” Shaun takes a sip of his hot chocolate and says, “Well, I am a little worried about work.” Shaun works at a store that sells car stereo systems. When he told me about his job, the first thing I thought of was how much money he could get if he stole just one stereo. Probably no one would miss it, and it could keep him in H for a week or two if he was careful.
“A couple of guys got laid off last week. I mean, they were fuck-ups, late all the time, lazy. So I can kind of see why. But I’m still a little stressed. Deedee doesn’t have a job. If I get canned, we’re on the street, man.”
Chris just nods the whole time Shaun is talking.
“They’d be dumb to fire you,” I say.
“That’s not the point,” Chris says, never taking his eyes off Shaun. “No matter what happens, you have the tools to handle it, right? You have a support network and your higher power. You can get through anything.”
I try not to choke on my coffee.
Shaun nods. Chris looks at me and says, “Hey, James, Shaun told me about your sister. I was sorry to hear that, man.”
My heart starts pounding. Why would Shaun tell this pud about Justine? I don’t want to talk about her, don’t want to think about her. I feel the blood rush into my ears and it sounds like the ocean. My stomach turns, the coffee making its way back up. I swallow hard and force it down, willing myself not to cry, not to break down right there in the restaurant.
“It’s okay, man,” Shaun carefully places a hand on my arm, like he’s not sure if he should touch me or not. He shouldn’t. I stand up too quickly. My spoon falls to the floor.
“Dude, you don’t have to go,” Shaun says. “Really, you don’t have to talk about it.”
I’m already headed to the door. I don’t even thank him for the coffee that he’ll have to pay for even though I only took a sip.
Once outside, I can breathe again. Justine. Justine. Her name presses itself onto every heartbeat. I try to push it from my mind, but I can’t get away.
It’s been two months. Two months since we watched her lowered into the ground. Two months since I touched my fingers to my lips and then to her ice cold cheek. It was a miracle we could have an open casket. Everyone said so. When she put the gun in her mouth, the bullet exited through the back of her skull, leaving her pretty face intact.
It should have been me.
* * *
I rush back to my apartment. In my room, I empty my wallet and am disappointed even though I knew I only had the ten. I was hoping I might have a buck or two that I forgot about.
My dad’s not around, but he probably doesn’t have any money to give me anyway. He doesn’t get his social security check for another week.
I press my hand against my forehead and sigh. I don’t want to do it, but I don’t have a choice.
I open the door to my parents’ bedroom. They never lock it. My mom probably figured I’d just break the lock, and to be honest, she’s right. There’s not much left now anyway, but I’m hoping for something. I just need ten bucks.
I open the dresser drawer and push aside her socks and underwear to reveal the little black velvet boxes. There are only three. How many were there before? I’m not sure, but I know that this drawer used to have a lot more of those little boxes.
I open one. Inside is a pair of earrings that look like pearls, but they’re gold. Before I can snap the box shut, the memory comes, so powerful that I collapse on the bed as it washes over me.
Justine wore those earrings at her wedding. I remember dancing with her during the money dance. The images are so vivid— the golden pearls playing off the amber flecks in her hazel eyes, the light bouncing off her brown curls. I had never seen her so happy.
I think of every time I didn’t pick up my phone when she called, every time I was a dick to her because she wouldn’t give me money to score. Already, there’s so much I can’t take back.
“Come on,” I mutter as I check the other two boxes, praying that there’s something there.
One is empty except for a square piece of foam that used to hold a ring. It was an emerald, I think. I got a lot more for it than I thought I would, ninety bucks.
The other box holds a silver cross. It’s pretty, but silver. The pawnshop won’t give me crap for that.
My head is throbbing. This is so fucked up. I can’t take those earrings, which are one of the only things my mom has left to remember Justine.
“No, James,” I say aloud to myself. I’m already sweating. My hands are shaking. I don’t know how to deal with this, to deal with Justine’s presence that is so much a part of this day already.
“No!” The word comes out as a growl. I drop the box and slam the dresser drawer shut with trembling hands. “No. Enough.”
This is the perfect time to get clean. Finally. I have a job that I can start tomorrow. And I was just about to steal the earrings that my dead twin sister wore at her wedding and pawn them for some cash to buy dope. How much lower can I get?
While I still have the resolve, I leave the house and walk to Ralph’s where I spend my last ten dollars on a bottle of orange Gatorade and a box of Theraflu.
There, I think. Now you have everything you need to kick. Just three days. You only have to get through three days.
Back at home, I get into bed in my clothes and pull the comforter over my head. It’s not so bad yet. Right now, my stomach is just cramping. But it’ll get worse. I’ve tried this enough times to know how much worse it’ll get, and how fast.
In just two hours, my shirt is soaked in sweat and I’m shaking uncontrollably.
I stagger to the kitchen and heat up water to mix the Theraflu. I sit in front of the TV and sip the lemony liquid. It helps a little. I finish my Theraflu and close my eyes as the theme song for Roseanne comes on.
I don’t know exactly how much time has passed when I wake up, but the light coming through the curtains has changed. The need is stronger. Every cell cries out for it, the one thing that will make all the pain stop in an instant. I chug down half a bottle of Gatorade and go back to my room, hoping I’ll be able to fall back asleep but already knowing better.
It’s a kind of agony that can only be understood by others who have tried to kick. Imagine the worst flu you’ve ever had and multiply it by ten thousand. My muscles cramp until they start to spasm. My insides wrench and twist. My mattress is soaked in sweat. I start to shiver.
“God damn it, James, you can do this,” I say to myself. But already I’m thinking how easy it would be, how easy just to get the money, to slide the familiar needle beneath my skin and feel the world disappear.
* * *
An hour later, I'm at the pawnshop where the owner knows me by name. Just inside the front door is a wooden Indian statue. It always reminds of Creepshow.
Mike, the owner, looks down at the earrings. The box looks so small in his gorilla-sized hands.
“I’ll give you forty dollars for these,” he says.
“But they’re real gold, and—”
“Nothing. They’re gold.” It’s not like I could ever make him understand how much they’re worth, how much it’s costing me to do this. “Can’t you at least give me fifty?”
He shakes his head. “Forty. Final offer.”
* * *
Back at my apartment with my precious cargo tucked into the inside pocket of my coat, I'm amazed by how something so small can be so powerful, the source of so much ecstasy and so much misery. I’m heading straight for the bathroom. The nearness of the high has my body going crazy for it. Nothing could stop me from doing this now. My hand is already reaching into my pocket.
Then I see something that stops me cold.
My mother’s bedroom door is open. She stands in front of her dresser with the empty box in her hand. She turns to look at me. Her brown eyes are filled with tears. Every feature is twisted in agony, every line in her face filled with unspeakable grief.
She is so far beyond anger that I can’t even bring myself to say anything. I just keep looking at her as tears stream down my own face.
She gasps suddenly, like she can’t breathe, she’s sobbing so hard.
Then she slams the door.
MICHELLE DOUGHERTY is an English Professor at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California. She has been teaching composition and literature for fourteen years. Her work has appeared previously in the Pomona Valley Review and Badlands.