My neighbor, a divorced mechanic who invites kids in and pours them draft beer to increase drug sales and his chances with the girls, offers me my first taste of methamphetamine at age fifteen. He calls it “crank,” like a car part or a grouchy old man. I’ve never snorted anything before. Whiffing something straight up your nose into your brain seems a violation of human dignity, and crank looks nasty, like ant poison and pulverized glass all chopped up on that mirror. It tastes even worse. I try not to cry, the burning pain is so terrible. I am certain I will sneeze blood all over the curtains, that I’ve done permanent damage. But then comes the drip, drip, drip, that bitter, alkaloid savor the meth user learns to associate with pleasure, and I wander around grinding my teeth and feeling like Bruce Lee grafted onto Aldous Huxley for about twelve hours. It takes three days to weather the hangover — the most desiccated and noxiously enervated state I’ve ever experienced. I vow never to do it again (“Never again, never again,” the chant of the meth-head), but 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 — and to write, I tell people. I’ve quit school again. Seems the one thing I learned in college is that college is not for me. But I won’t be here long. I just want to finish up the novel about the redneck chiropractor with the crystal ball, sell it, make a little cash, and start doing the talk-show circuit. Even though I’m confident of my talent, I suspect that I should’ve finished school, gotten a degree, woven 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 home to live with my parents.
The neighborhood hasn’t changed much: small, drafty, suburban, ranch-style homes, the Southwestern motif drawn out to the point of absurdity with split-rail fences, wagon wheels, dangling branding irons, and varnished cow skulls. Thrown up in a hurry back in 1957, the houses remind me of the tacky little cottages on miniature-golf courses. Many owners have not made much effort, despite rocketing California real-estate prices, to keep their properties from becoming eyesores. I’m not surprised to see Meuenchau and Coombs just where I left them: sitting in Meuenchau’s old pickup truck, smoking homegrown and listening to Leon Russell 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’ve got to go. . . .
My parents have always been kind. My mother humors me about my writing ambitions because I’m her son. My father actually seems to understand. He would’ve been a writer too, but he got waylaid by alcohol and an early marriage and the need to bring home the bacon. Plus he is one of the few people I’ve met who knows that writing is pure torture, and to grab that diamond you must walk 4,018 miles into hell. He’d rather watch the sprinklers and listen to the ballgame, a glass of German white wine in his hand. He’s the only one out of all of us — including me, I have to admit — who believes I will succeed.
Both my parents work, so I have the whole morning and half the afternoon to myself. At last, a chance to write uninterrupted in a quiet house. I spread all my pens and paper out on the dining-room table. My eyes drift toward the newspaper and back. I doodle. I grow drowsy. Five minutes pass. My muses must have gone to the moon. To keep from falling asleep, I write a letter to a friend. Look at the prose explode! And there are so many books to read. I feel undereducated, probably because I keep quitting school, so I drift to the couch and begin to read a novel whose author I admire, or perhaps a neglected volume of history or philosophy, and then maybe just a wee bit of a nap, to let all the teeming ideas soak in.
After a few months of sleeping late, reading on the couch, and writing letters to friends, I decide I’d better get a job. I haven’t finished one chapter in the Redneck Chiropractor Novel, and I need to stop asking Dad for money. (Can I have five dollars to go to the bar?) The way the neighbors look at me, once a gifted youth with a ticket out of this working-class neighborhood, makes me feel like a snake in a toilet bowl. Anyway, physical labor is good for the soul. I have fashioned myself after that class of writer who is not afraid to get his hands dirty, who can write about an adz, a pallet jack, or a skip loader without having to look them up in the dictionary.
Coombs and Meuenchau work in the barrio on Logan Avenue, not far from downtown San Diego, in a chemical warehouse where just about anyone can get a job, including me. Coombs and I are “parts pullers.” We’re handed a phoned-in requisition from a “parts retailer,” and we fill a plastic crate with car wax, Marvel Mystery Oil, fuel filters, brake fluid, engine starter, and the like, then drop it off and pick up the next requisition. Meuenchau delivers these “parts” to the various retailers. The days go by fast enough, but by the time I get home, the sun is almost gone, and I’m too tired to write. Still, hard work feels good. I feel “real” again. I don’t have to ask Dad for money. The next-door neighbor pounds me fraternally on the back, and I sit in a lawn chair in his driveway, smelling the oil that drips from his Ford Ranchero and hoping his daughter will come out in her terry shorts as we lament (as every generation has since the advent of language) the brevity of the days and the general decline in 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.
Coombs grew up four houses down from me. A runty high-school dropout with tousled blond hair and a sharp Adam’s apple, he has, I believe, some sort of undiagnosed Tourette’s syndrome, but he’s too poor, simple, and uncaring to do anything about it. (Until the last twenty out of a million years of human history, our “neurological disorders” were simply our personalities.) Coombs is inclined to violence and has a variety of tics. He claps, hops, and hoots. He screeches, coughs, barks, spits, grunts, gurgles, clacks, hisses, whistles, whoops, gives you the finger, wants to arm-wrestle you (he’s very strong), and finishes your sentences in a ghostly mumble that makes it seem for a moment as if he is reading your mind. I remember him in his baby carriage. I remember him catching me on the way to school one morning and showing me an Irish setter that had hung itself by jumping, still hooked to its leash, over a brick wall. Here he is at ten years old drinking from a bottle of Ten High bourbon on the couch in a ramshackle gas-and-chicken-smelling house piled high with furniture and trash, his mother in her muumuu glued to the TV. As I recall, he began smoking pot in second grade. Marijuana ameliorates his symptoms, turns his jerking and swearing into squirming, giggling, blank stares, and occasionally pithy observations, such as “Why do people have hair?”
Meuenchau, twenty-nine, lives with his mother on the next block over. (His father died of cancer a few years ago.) He is slump shouldered and reed thin, his eyes narrow slits in a Slavic face so thick it looks like a mask, his receding hair tied in a ponytail that hangs down his back. Calm 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.
After work I drink a beer or two, have dinner with my parents, and watch or listen to the ballgame with my father, who by then has advanced himself to that insensate state he manages to achieve most every night. I scribble a note or two on the novel (“Ramon drove the forklift, blades raised, into the second deck”), then grow restless, loins astir, my warehouse-hardened muscles taut, my youthful thirst in need of slaking. I walk past suburban windows revealing warm life inside and end up on the next street over, where Meuenchau and Coombs sit in the blue homegrown haze of Meuenchau’s Ford truck 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 carburetor dip; Barry pinned by a runaway pallet of Pennzoil, two ribs broken. They’re content with work, sleep, dope, and Jack-in-the-Box burgers. They have no fear 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 get derailed again. Even high, I know I’m running out of time. Pretty soon I’m going to start that novel. See you bright and early in the morning, fellows.
About this time Javier Medina — another old neighbor, and an ex–heroin addict with federal-pen time and gang activity on his résumé — makes a surprising reappearance. Honestly I never thought I’d see him again. It’s been five years since he disappeared. But the news is he’s kicked the habit and wants to start over, reenter this dispiriting suburban theater we call “society.” I have to say he looks good, like the old Javier, a track star and varsity-basketball player. And he’s got a heavyset Boston honey with messed-up teeth named Flora. She seems homey and solid, the kind of maternal influence a guy teetering on the edge might need. I’ve always liked Javier. He has a nimble mind and is a font of quaint expressions and dirty jokes. (“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 smoking, it’s cooking; if it’s burning, it’s done!” He can quote Tom Waits lyrics 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 (no one around here even thinks about fooling with him), I’ve never found a reason to dislike him.
All Javier needs now, besides the willpower to resist temptation, is a job. Not an easy thing to come by for an ex–heroin addict with a criminal record who hasn’t officially worked in three or four years. The answer, of course, is the chemical warehouse; they’re always hiring. I put in a good word for him, and he’s on the payroll. Javier throws himself into his work, filling crates with oil, air, and fuel filters. Whether or not I’ve done him a favor remains to be seen.
Meuenchau and Coombs have moved out of the truck and now spend their evenings inside Javier’s home, where there’s a fridge to keep your beer cold, flat surfaces on which to roll your doobies, better speakers for your Moody Blues, and an address to which pizza can be delivered. Javier has known these boys all his life. He’s exactly Meuenchau’s age. They were in the same grade in school until Meuenchau fell behind and then eventually quit. I worry a bit that they might be a bad influence on Javier, but he will have to weather stronger temptations, and I understand that a little pot is probably a good thing. As long as a needle doesn’t appear, what’s wrong with a party? No one is telling the ex-junkie that he must wear a straitjacket and sit on a wooden pew reciting the names of flowers for the rest of his life.
Meuenchau and Coombs seem motivated by their new relationship with our resurrected comrade: more intent, harder working, less trivial. They are suddenly concerned about such matters as the new shipping-and-receiving table and whether or not an order goes out on schedule. They might even be a little rushed and agitated at times. I find the change, if not refreshing, then at least interesting. I ignore some obvious signals: the dilated pupils, tense jaw muscles, constant sniffing, and faraway looks. (Note also that Coombs’s Tourette’s symptoms have all but disappeared, and Meuenchau, practically as sexless as they come, has begun talking seriously about girls.) But I’m convinced it’s their new indoor life, Mama Flora’s homemade navy beans with ham and Boston cream pie, and Javier’s fine example that have inspired them to some sort of self-improvement.
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, eyes shining, chin thrust aerodynamically forward, a feather duster in her right hand. She seems highly animated and flushed, as if 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,” Javier calls. I ease into the living room and find him barefoot in his recliner, singing along with Dan Hicks’s “I Scare Myself.” Coombs is leaning intently over the coffee table, slowly tearing the pages from a hot-rod magazine. Meuenchau, smoking stoically in the rocking chair, might be the Polish Marlboro Man. Flatmo, whom I went to high school with, stands in the corner in a leather jacket, long black hair flattened and sliced down the middle, a shine on his boots, jabbering at a girl I’ve never seen before who has the hollow-eyed aspect of a bandit. Flora, having gotten me a beer, has resumed dusting the hearth. Against the wall, beneath a painted-by-numbers Blue Boy, sits a nice-looking girl with daffodil hair and serene satin gray eyes. Looks like Dawn Fairburn from long ago. My word, it is Dawn Fairburn. What are you doing here?
I’ve known Dawn since second grade. She and I were much alike, scurvy outdoor children who scored high on tests but tried to pretend we weren’t smart so the other kids would like us. We almost went steady in fifth grade. In junior high Dawn had a bad skin problem, which ensured her rejection by the Allied powers of popularity. Then, along 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. She was lustrous and thronged by admirers and barely acknowledged me. I’ve heard that she married Roy, the high-school quarterback. I look around to see where he might be hiding.
Presently there’s a clack, clack, clack, and Flatmo, having emerged from his frothy tête-à-tête with the bandit girl, taps the razor on the glass one last time and hands the mirror to Meuenchau. The guests jump as if Pavlov has rung a bell. Meuenchau 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 blink silently at the ceiling, like some kind of devotional rite.
When the mirror comes around to me, I stare into the smeared lines. I really thought this stuff had been expunged from the planet, like smallpox and polio. In all the places I’ve been in the last ten years, I’ve neither seen nor heard of it, except from a pair of black-toothed bikers who were using it intravenously. A few vague memories trickle back, along with a general sense of misgiving. Dawn smiles at me: long-lost, beautiful Dawn with those uplifted Swedish eyes; the pleasing, shapely mouth; the legs she knows just how to cross. Her look says, 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. I realize she probably needs psychological help. You can’t be out doing lines of crystal meth 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 when we flew homemade kites after school. All the other kids had left, 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 working-class artist can’t 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 my mechanic neighbor gave me when I was fifteen, changed in name only. To my right Coombs, 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 were coke. I’d chide him, but what does it matter? Sniffing back bitter drops, I feel at ease for the first time in years. I’d forgotten this part: The stuff works on me the way Ritalin (brand name for the central-nervous-system stimulant methylphenidate) works on hyperactive children. I can’t explain it, but it slows me down somehow, the same way it diffuses the majority of Coombs’s motor tics.
Overall, the effect of this inhaled, industrial-strength speed is Pentecostal-church-meets-Hercules-at-the-beach. There’s a feeling like love, galactic in proportion, blended with 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 like a basketball on your fingertip, wallpaper the living room, find a girl, settle down and have a family, drive on up to Canada and sell all the leather belts you’ve just tooled. It’s just that instead you choose to stay here and talk with these wonderful people who share your dreams and are as loving and optimistic as you because, after all, they are your family. And, unlike cocaine, the stuff costs next to nothing and lasts for hours — days, if you want; you’re not chained like 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 the powder from the carousel mirror. I feel like Sir Isaac Newton after seventeen cups of coffee. I am immortal and indestructible. While Coombs and Meuenchau arm-wrestle at the coffee table and Flora cleans behind the stove (say what you will about the scourge of methamphetamine, but look at all the spotless kitchens), I chain-smoke, play ping-pong and foosball in the garage, listen to records, and speak authoritatively on all subjects. I drink a case of beer, which has the same effect on me as water. Flatmo is the dealer, and he’s cutting this stuff out for free, because he’s rich. That’s his BMW out front. He’s another shining example of a nobody transported to the royal ball by the fairy meth-mother. Until he’s fitted with handcuffs (first time, suspended sentence; second, three and a half years federal time), he can have three girls a night — four, if he wants — and take them all in a Lear jet to Newfoundland in the morning. Women love meth more than men. (I mean that both ways.) It offers power and escape plus all the supermarket-magazine promises: energy, weight loss, improved self-esteem, and increased sexual stamina.
Finally Dawn and I are alone on the patio, cigarettes burning in our fingers. In her petite summer dress she’s the poster girl for my adolescent fantasies: bronze legs, gold hair falling like coins, that sulky bottom lip, those inquisitive brows that seem to say, Wouldn’t you like to know me a little better? I realize I’ve never actually talked to her except in the most modest of exchanges. She’s not exactly how I thought she’d be: she says “ain’t” for “isn’t” and “don’t” for “doesn’t,” the way most of these sons and daughters of machinists, punch-press operators, navy captains, and firemen do — myself included. We can’t betray our class, can’t appear to be snobs. She’s smart, though, knows the difference between Herzog the famous German movie director and Herzog 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 the university. I mean, you’re permitted to leave this neighborhood and become 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. It was a mistake to get married so young, to such an obvious candidate, whose greatest achievement was already behind him on his wedding day. Yes, he had scholarship offers from colleges, but he never even replied. The aging quarterback and she are both kind of messed up on meth, she admits. On his “party” days he likes to hang with the boys, play darts, 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 pass with no time on the clock. And he’s probably sleeping with someone else. They stay together because it’s convenient, 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 they don’t know what else to do.
Not having seen meth in long-term action yet, I assume she’s describing a phase. It is a hard time in your midtwenties when you realize that you are not going to be a movie star or a famous athlete, as your childhood fantasies and millions of hours of television-watching led you to believe. Likely she assumed her captivating good looks 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 to go back to school and get her teaching credentials. Our dreams seem not only accessible, close enough to touch, but completed. It’s already true, isn’t it? I mean, if I weren’t out here with a swollen bladder, leaning against the brick siding and chattering with this jelly nougat from my past, I’d go home right now, type it up, and 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 you get from alcohol, as if your nerves have been shaved by an asthmatic witch doctor, pumped with mustard gas, and then stomped crooked by a drunken plumber who refuses to clean his boots. I’m convinced that methamphetamine is not a drug but a plague with which Nature has supplied us in lieu of yellow fever and cholera. There is nothing subtle or romantic about this souped-up bathtub solvent concocted from the very same items I move daily at the chemical warehouse. It doesn’t inspire odes and lyrics the way heroin does. Think of all the great heroin songs, from the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” to David Bowie’s “China Girl.” No one writes songs about meth, for the same reason no one writes songs about yellow fever and cholera.
I am back at Javier’s the next Friday. Amphetamines can be useful, I tell myself. They make you productive, a creative dynamo even. Think of Ayn Rand, who wrote The Fountainhead — all 720 pages of it — on amphetamines. And my drugs are about twenty times stronger than hers.
Javier, Meuenchau, Coombs, Flora, and I begin another two-and-a-half-day binge, starting the moment we leave work on Friday afternoon. We stop and get plenty of cigarettes and beer. I make provisions to visit my parents and appear to have slept. Like Nazis and religious fanatics, we escape into the feeling of power. As many as twenty revelers might flow in and out of this fiesta of the damned, every one blighted, greasy, sniffing, febrile, ashen, chattering; molars wearing down, arteries hardening, heart straining, brain wavering, though the luminous, diabolical deception inside refuses to yield.
At parties, inebriation was always a prerequisite to relaxation for me, but now, with meth, I am Effortless Me: amiable, witty, vibrant. As if in answer to my prayers, Dawn’s marriage continues to crumble, and soon she is a weekend regular too. She and I find excuses to take walks or chat on the patio. We volunteer for liquor-store runs. We seem to have the most in common, which perhaps is another way of saying we have 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 that operate against my will, these destructive cravings that have supplanted everything I stand for: art, independence, home cooking, the pleasure of family, slow-paced conversation, and sleeping in on Sunday morning. I’m starting to look sick. The energy I once reserved for writing and women is now spent on bingeing and blathering camaraderie. My head swarms with shadows and black flies. My novel and ambitions have dissolved like the toxic dust in my lungs. Each time I bend over that mirror heaped with oily piles of crystalline misery, I try not to see the ravaged man with the inflamed nostrils and the leaden, greedy eyes.
Dawn likes that vegetarian restaurant on University Avenue that serves edible flowers. Her favorite song is Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust.” She jokes about becoming a stripper to pay the bills. It’s not unusual to be walking along with her and look over to see her climbing a tree. She has streaks of down that run from her jawline to the nape of her exquisite neck. We slip away when we can to a revival movie house in Kensington to watch old French movies, anything black and white with children running through fields of poppies. Next door is the mandatory cocktail lounge, where one night on the TV we watch a documentary about Jim Jones, the charismatic religious leader and ex-door-to-door monkey salesman, who drew his followers to the jungles of Guyana and induced a mass suicide with cyanide-spiked Kool-Aid. (Actually, it was Flavor Aid, but the Kool-Aid legend is now secure.) The documentary is unwittingly sponsored by Kool-Aid, and the delectable absurdity of this, atop the rich pleasure of seeing people even more lost and self-destructive than we are, makes Dawn and me laugh so hard that we must hold on to one another. In that moment I realize I would rather die than miss another chance with her.
Later that night on the beach, we stroll the hard, wet sand along the edge of the skimming waves. The thick fog smells of chewable vitamins and prehistoric fish. The flicker-haunted surf has its own babble and chant. We approach the boardwalk, where a figure slumped in a wheelchair is outlined by the yellow glow of a streetlamp. The scent of wet charcoal drifts up from a fire pit. Without a word we stop and face one another. We can’t, I say. “That’s supposed to be my line,” she says. I’m leaving soon, I mumble. “All the better,” she says. I’ll have to change the name of my novel to I Am a Varmint, I say. “Fuddy-duddy,” she says, taking my hand, and we stroll on in the sea-roaring darkness.
Several days later by the pool table in a bar full of retirees at seven in the morning, she presses up against me in a muscular, feline arch and plants a long kiss on my lips. We’re haggard and wasted, with scarecrow hair. Our brains are syrup. We’re running on polluted, tertiary neural residue and cheap draft beer. Clouds in my head, I think for a moment about ravishing her on the green felt right in front of these goopy-eyed pensioners in their Goodwill hats, then remind myself where it will lead. (Would I want the former star QB to shoot my wife into the corner pocket?) I wonder how long I will keep falling, and if Dawn will follow me to the bottom. I consider watching this town recede from the window of a Greyhound bus. Too bad I have only sixteen bucks.
Coombs’s Tourette’s symptoms have been replaced by a more sinister set of behaviors. He has, for example, stopped going to work half the time. We drive by to pick him up and find him still in bed — sick, he says. (“Sick” is right.) He sits smoking or contemplating, his brain a-humming, and digs at raw patches on his scalp where the hair is falling away. He’s begun to discuss in detail the prophecies of Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce. Once a simple, playful soul, he’s inherited the dark burden of a goofed-up planet. He’s worrisome, not fun. He’s a self-medicated, bloody-headed spook. Aren’t you concerned about your liver, I ask him, your heart, your brain? “I don’t think about things that way,” he answers. And when he has to spend a weekend under observation at the hospital because his Edgar Cayce infatuations have gotten too real, none of us goes down to visit him. Frankly we’re afraid to, as if we might be waddling downtown to witness our own future. Anyway, he’ll be all right. He just has to lay off the powder awhile — which he doesn’t.
The once-plump Flora, like many women in thrall to monster-truck amphetamines, finds her emaciation somehow appealing. When she learns that she is pregnant, however, she leaves immediately for Boston. Javier replaces her with a more attractive, less housecleaning-obsessed woman named Brenda, and no one thinks much about Flora anymore, especially Javier.
Meuenchau is having gum problems and suspects that his teeth are starting to fall out. He has been dating a sixteen-year-old chronic meth user known affectionately around the neighborhood as “Da Beef,” but she leaves him to marry another, much older man (who, by strange coincidence, is a meth dealer). Distraught and crying, Meuenchau locks himself in the Medina bathroom and refuses to come out. I wonder if he will cut his wrists or try to drown himself in the toilet. We think we should call someone, but who? His mother, perhaps? At last, after I confess to him through the door seven rousing romantic failures (plenty more where that came from), he comes out mopping his eyes with his bony wrists and vows to quit doing drugs. Think of that snooze-bar life he once had: slow, smiling, dreamy; shake hands with everyone and watch the same Twilight Zone episode over and over because you don’t remember it; catch a big, glittering fish on Sunday; Mama with roast beef on the table — all of it now scattered like sheep shit in the hot Wyoming wind. Yes, he’s going to quit these stupid fucking drugs, go back to the gentle life and keep his teeth awhile longer.
He doesn’t quite make it.
Javier and I are the only ones who go to work every day now. Granitelike as Javier seems, he startles me sometimes because he appears to be shrinking: his face turning to vellum, hair patched with gray. The smirk on his little-old-man face seems to suggest that this premature decay is not only intentional, but somehow funny. I wonder how anyone can volunteer for a meaningless death so young.
I don’t include myself in this, you see, because I’m going to quit these drugs any day now. I really mean it this time.
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 three days, doesn’t know if he’s out partying, moved to Idaho, filed for divorce, sold the house, gone on a jaunt to Vegas, or died on the rug from an overdose, but she must get home, and I aim to get her there safely. 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. Her nice little ass has shrunk to two apples in a cloth bag; her 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 I care? My love is a loyal love, an indestructible, superpower love. If only we had gone steady in fifth grade, probably none of this would’ve happened.
Grinding and blinking, we approach her house. It’s 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 and follow. The house is dark and smells sepulchral with loneliness. Roy is not dead — at least, not here.
Dawn and I are still holding hands. “Let’s screw,” she says. Christ, I thought it would be different somehow. OK, where? “The guest room,” she says. We sneak down the hall. The guest room has a bunny theme and a sewing machine. We kiss hotly. She’s not much for foreplay, ripping open my jeans, pulling my T-shirt over my head. I yank down her dress, and we kiss naked. She’s still wearing her socks. She’s very agile, strong too, even if she has lost twelve pounds in the last four months and her eyes are rattling in their sockets.
As if unleashing twelve Hoover Dam turbines, we attack the one real pleasure left to us, the one desire not totally supplanted by endorphins. It’s a form of desperation, a shoveling over of emptiness, a heated, lunging chase after the answer to our troubles. We leap across each other like jack rabbits. 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 on the weekends I have an added demon riding me. Dawn and I slip away, sneak off, leave early, make an excuse. We do it in a car, in a park, on the cement behind the liquor store. Once, we have it out in the early-morning light beneath some kind of ridiculous leafless bush. Every detail of this graceless union conspires to make me ill, but the 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 cock. She’s a lake of wetness, arched up, watching me slide into her, her front teeth pushed forward, her eyes switched off. And then we’re whamming and slamming, the bush rattling, and she’s moaning so loud I have to cover her mouth. I wonder what we must look like, crashing into each other in this skeleton of a hedge, two skinny blue apes, two corpses. I want to get this over with. The sky is red with the rising sun. I’m not going to do this again. Isn’t that what I always say? But I’m not. I’m going to run away. I’m going someplace where no one will find me. I know I’ll be the same person there, but I’ll run again and again, and 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 I worked with at a restaurant in Colorado has just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and landed his first job as a chef in the dying city of Niagara Falls. He can’t find any decent cooks. Would I come out and help him? If I could reach through the phone wires and hug him, I would. He has no idea that he has saved me. (Of course, he hasn’t.)
Dawn and I have one last night together. Drunk and cranked up (this is the last time, I really mean it), we drive down the interstate to Ocean Beach. We’re such a rangy, spluttering, ratty couple, any cop who pulls us over will think we’ve escaped from a hospital or missed the boat to Guyana. As usual, I’m flummoxed as to why we could not have met under normal circumstances, why this pattern cannot be righted somehow: the impenetrable nature of my cheating, burning, dying life; these torrid souls I always find to cling to in my descent.
It’s cold and drizzling at the beach, so we sit in the car overlooking Sunset Cliffs. In seven hours I’ll be on a plane with another ripping hangover, preparing myself for landing, staring down on a dead city encased in ice. But at least they won’t have meth in Niagara Falls — not for another two years, anyway. And for a while, reading the classics by the radiator on the floor of my ancient, unfurnished apartment, I’ll fly straight, restore a rickety order, take careful notes, drink tea and steam the windows with my deep thoughts, pretend to be mistreated, unlucky, and misunderstood — until boredom, lust, and the new Javiers and Flatmos come gather me up for another graveyard waltz.
Dawn clutches me, her eyes vexed and wet, the windows fogged. The radio plays Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” What I should suggest to this rare creature of my affection is that we make some kind of pact, use our brains to dig ourselves out of this pit. We’re too young to decay. We’ll clean up, comb our hair, and see if we can’t find that door to adulthood. I’ll finish my novel; she’ll return to school. But every time I call it love, it’s really something else: the married woman, the troubled girl, the one I meet just before it’s time to go, each doomed arrangement a carefully selected guarantee of pleasure followed by the escape.
Dawn kisses me violently, fear in her eyes. “I’ll come with you,” she says. Yes, I say vaguely, but it seems to me that, like Coombs, Meuenchau, and Javier, she’s not going to quit until her heart stops or someone takes her away and locks her in a room against her will. And I’ve got enough problems of my own. She’s breaking down now; she won’t let go of my neck. If it weren’t a lie, I’d tell her everything was going to be all right. I have to go, I say gently, and when she looks up, all I can see is that skinny, fifth-grade girl alone on an elementary-school playground, flying that homemade kite.