Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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A few days before my birthday, on the summer solstice, my mom was in the kitchen smoking. She smoked while sifting through bills, all the debts she’d acquired as a single mother raising three kids on eighteen thousand dollars a year — a few thousand above the poverty line. She was standing in profile to me with what looked like a very long cigarette in her hand. But it wasn’t a cigarette. It was an empty pen tube. She was smoking meth out of a white plastic pen devoid of ink, its use now for writing whatever was in her head. The burning smell — of plastic or meth; it’s hard to say which — crept through the hot air of the old Victorian where we lived. She was on a break from her retail job at the increasingly desolate mall in the Nebraska railroad town where I was born. She didn’t notice me standing there. She thought no one else was home.
This is how, in 2000, at the age of sixteen, I learned my mom was smoking methamphetamine. At the time, the nation’s drug crises were still thought of as an “urban” problem, not a matter that could affect largely white communities like my small hometown on the Great Plains. But that veneer was starting to peel.
I knew little about hard drugs. I had friends who smoked pot — I had smoked pot, too — but I did not have any friends who did meth, to my knowledge. Still, it wasn’t hard for me to come to the conclusion that my mom was addicted. A few weeks after I’d accepted this fact, I sat alone on a bench in the city park, the hot sun beating my face, and pondered the question: How did this happen?
My mom smoked meth out of Bic Round Stic ballpoint pens, pulling out the ink cartridge and popping off the back to create a makeshift pipe. Leading up to this discovery, I had noted the presence of these empty pens — in kitchen drawers, in her purse among lipstick tubes and faded dollar bills and maxed-out credit cards.
According to the “Strategist” section of New York magazine, the Bic Round Stic Xtra Life ballpoint pen is the “Best (Least Expensive) Model.” In high school I saw many of these pens during my evening shifts at a telemarketing call center, where I sold long distance to America Online customers who had telephoned the help line only to be transferred to sales. The call script still echoes in my head:
“AOL is offering you this great new deal on your long distance. So let’s get your savings started today,” I’d say in the somewhat effeminate voice of my teenage self.
“No thanks,” the irritated caller would say.
“Sir, I understand your hesitation,” I’d reply, using the first line from the required script, “but you can save money by combining your long distance with your Internet for one low monthly payment. So let’s get your savings started today.”
“I said no, you little fag,” the caller might respond before hanging up.
At least this job was easier than working in the cornfields, which I had done for several summers. In between calls, I could skim books or write. My copy of Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions — about American capitalism’s purge of independent media — was once confiscated by my floor manager, a stressed-out single mother with a bully of a son in my grade. The floor manager scolded me while marveling at my inky margin notes.
At that age I would read and write myself to sleep at night in the same old house where my mother had grown up before me; where she’d gotten pregnant at sixteen and where her mother had wept behind closed doors.
I still fall asleep writing. It helps quiet the brain. I wake up to bedsheets spotted by black ink.
I am thirty-eight now. It’s been more than twenty years since the summer when I put the pieces of my mom’s meth addiction together: Twenty years during which she has lost everything and been incarcerated multiple times. Twenty years during which I have worked toward graduate degrees in the social sciences, perhaps in an effort to explain what happened to my working-class mom.
My first memory is of the flat horizon of the land where I was raised: Car tires kicking up gravel. Cigarette smoke scraping my nostrils. Mom singing along to Madonna on the car radio in her soft soprano.
“Stop doing your nails in the fucking car!” Dad screamed as he drove. Mom rolled down the window and, undeterred, kept removing fingernail polish with a cotton swab doused in acetone.
“All right!” he yelled. He pressed on the gas, and we accelerated toward the flat horizon line, as if we were going to drive off the edge into heaven. Mom’s blood-red fingernails yanked his ponytail. He braked. The song on the radio changed.
Dad often stayed out all night, playing in a band. His breath smelled like the inside of a bar. He had quit his job at the grocery store to play music.
One sunny spring day on the front lawn, Dad fought with Mom’s father, a former boxer. Grandfather punched Dad in the nose, and his face ran red with blood. Mom stood on the rotting side porch in her nice clothes from work: a midnight-blue dress with white polka dots.
Dad blew up and smashed dishes, then said he was sorry. He smoked pot in the living room with his friend the glass-cutter, who’d fixed the window Dad had smashed one night when he couldn’t remember how sorry he’d been the last time he’d gotten so angry. Dad had never wanted to be an alcoholic or an abusive husband or parent, like his own father, but it’s hard to undo a pattern. And raising kids is stressful. At least pot made him mellow.
Around Christmas when I was six, Dad and Mom split up, but not without a proper blowout first. That Christmas Eve, as snow fell, the fighting began. My middle sister and I, the youngest, woke up to find the lower panels of our bedroom door kicked in.
The fighting continued on and off until New Year’s, when Mom drove away and Dad hopped on the roof of the car. I watched from the side porch as he slipped off onto the snowy street. My sisters and I put ourselves to bed that night.
Our parents divorced. Dad, always in and out of work, never paid child support. Mom worked days, nights, weekends.
“Boy, you’re the man of the family now,” Grandfather told me after Dad was gone.
“Not really, honey,” Mom said, touching my arm. “I’m the dad and the mom.”
And she was, until she was spent. But Grandfather’s words took hold, and I felt like I was the parent, too. So when the meth addiction hit, it was bearable. I’d always suspected I’d have to live like this.
That my mother — the provider who needed to stay up all the time — could become addicted to a powerful stimulant made sense to me, though at the time I couldn’t explain exactly why. Some things, like being gay, I grasped before I had the words to describe them. Which is to say, after I discovered my mom smoking meth in the kitchen, holding an empty pen tube above a piece of tinfoil, the afternoon sun streaming through the windows behind her, I quickly came to terms with it.
I speak with my hands. I always have. If I were in front of you now, you’d see me posing questions with my right palm outstretched, as though together we might hold an answer.
I learned to speak from my mother. I learned her mannerisms, her diction. From her I learned how a metaphor can marry contradictions into a single idea, like magic. When I was a young child, she said I was an old man in a boy’s body.
My mom and I once wrote a story together about a duckling I’d won at the county fair when I was seven, the summer after my dad had left the picture. On a hot day in late July, my sister and I approached a fair booth, where a tanned old woman took our sweaty dollar bills and handed us plastic rings. To win a duck, we had to toss the ring around a toy rubber duck bobbing in a cow trough full of water. My sister and I tossed our rings at the same time. They collided in midair, and my ring fell around the neck of one of the little rubber ducks. The woman in the booth brought out a cage full of bustling ducklings and told me to pick. One of them looked at me with dark, silent eyes.
“I choose that one,” I said, pointing to the brown duckling whose chest feathers were turning gold, like splinters of light. A mallard, he had a dark line beside each of his intense eyes, as if he were wearing heavy eye makeup. He was a proper little drag queen.
The orphaned duckling thought that I was his mother. He greeted me every morning and waddled after me when I walked down the street, wiggling his butt the way I did mine. (I’d inherited my mom’s swishy walk, too.) At night I put the duckling to sleep on the side porch of the old Victorian.
Before school started in the fall, my mom said we had to take the duckling to a farm near the Platte River, where migratory birds flocked in fall and spring.
I didn’t want to send him away.
“School is starting, honey,” she said, “and we can’t keep him in town.”
So we wrote a story about how the duckling would fly off and make a life of his own, but we would always love him, as long as we lived. Then we drove to the country. The autumn equinox was coming, and the leaves of the cottonwoods along the road shimmered in the last slants of sun.
We got to the farm at dusk. The farmer, a wiry and weathered old-timer who sold sweet corn from his truck, told us to take the little duck to the shed behind the house. We opened the shed door and set the duckling down on the hay. As we left, the duckling tried to run after us. We shut the door.
When my mom became addicted to meth and sold the old Victorian to pay her debts, the only existing copy of that story went into the trash. I can still see the cover — green construction paper with a crayon drawing of the duckling — at the top of a fifty-gallon trash bag, surrounded by cigarette butts and inkless shells of Bic Round Stic ballpoint pens.
Drugs can make us do stupid things — though, to be fair, drugs can also help us meet formidable demands. Meth can make you work hard as hell, the way my mom did, doing a full-time job at a farm-equipment company on weekdays and part-time retail jobs on weekends, until it all came crashing down.
In December, five or six months after the day I’d first seen my mom smoking meth, my family staged an intervention. My older sisters — who had both left home by that point — showed up. My mom’s parents came. My dad made an appearance.
My mom’s boyfriend at the time — a motorcycle meth-head and drug dealer — had ratted her out to us, saying she was an addict and sleeping with the “whole damn town.” There are a couple of problems with that statement: Meth can certainly decrease sexual inhibition, but she could not have slept with the “whole damn town.” And even if she had slept with a whole town of consenting adults, it was her right. To be honest, under the influence of no drugs except alcohol, I’ve slept with an entire village worth of men. But women — and especially mothers — have to be proper. Untouched. Perfect.
The intervention was on a Sunday. Around dinnertime Mom came in the side door of the house and found us sitting in the dining room, waiting. All of us were there, even the motorcycle meth-head, his knuckles chapped from the winter air.
Though I hadn’t seen her in days, at first glance she looked put together. Her face was made up, her lips highlighted by red lipstick. But her hair was greasy, her eyes vacant and glossy. She was high.
She was wearing a long mouton fur coat that had been her grandmother’s. She and I had found the fur in the attic a few years prior, along with some costume jewelry from the 1940s. Mouton, in French, means “sheep.” Pretty and cheap. Beneath the coat she was wearing a blue dress and nylons from her retail job, which she was still doing in a scattered way. People were starting to gossip, mostly at church.
We told her she had a problem, our faces as glum and sallow as bowls of cold oatmeal.
“I don’t have a problem,” she growled. “My problem is you all.”
She blamed her addiction on motherhood. She blamed my oldest sister, then twenty-three, for making her a mother at sixteen. She blamed my middle sister, eighteen, for getting into trouble with the law and leaving home with her boyfriend, who was bound for the Nebraska state penitentiary for dealing meth himself. She blamed my dad for never paying her a dime of child support. She blamed me for still being around. She said I stayed up too late doing homework, so she could never have any privacy. That’s why she never came home.
“You’re always thinking!” she screamed at me. “It’s so annoying!”
Then she said that no one loved her, and she collapsed on the sofa, draped in the mouton fur, and rested her head on her mother’s lap. Her mascara ran.
“I love you,” my grandmother said. “I’ll never let you go.”
But before the night was over, my grandmother had to leave. Everyone did. The last person departed at midnight. I stayed to keep tabs on my mom.
The commotion in the house had aroused the neighbors’ suspicions. Early in the morning the police came, waking me from a fitful sleep. It was snowing — a big blanket of fresh white for Christmas, but to me it felt cold, sinister. A female officer stood at the front door with two male officers. She was pretty, blond hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. Snowflakes stuck to her plucked eyebrows.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“I think so,” I said.
“We had calls from neighbors that there was a problem here.”
“There’s no problem here. Our main problem is that we have nosy neighbors.”
My mom was not a bad mother. She was a good provider, until the addiction changed her. At the time, with no hard knowledge about meth addiction, I looked to research as a way to understand. Lisa Belkin wrote an article for The New York Times about meth use among working- and middle-class women, arguing that pressure placed on them to be both the perfect mother and the perfect employee — and on single mothers to be both the emotional caretaker and fatherly provider — made them susceptible to meth.
I thought of the Christmases my mother planned every year: the many presents under an ample, glittering tree; the little notes from Santa that she wrote in block letters to disguise her pretty, cursive penmanship. I thought of the new clothes she bought me on discount from her weekend retail job at the mall: sharp khakis, cardigans, and button-up shirts.
In Women on Ice sociologist Miriam Boeri interviewed sixty-five women who used meth. Many came from working- or middle-class families and were struggling to keep up appearances. They had multiple jobs and used meth to stay up longer and work harder. Through her case studies, Boeri documented that some of these women, despite becoming addicted, were able to continue using without disastrous consequences, though most experienced difficult outcomes: loss of family, frequent relapses into drug use, and incarceration.
I contacted Boeri once by phone, years after the events described here. I told her about my mom’s history of enduring domestic violence and a nonstop work schedule. I told her I was trying to write about my mom’s addiction, both to understand it and in the belief that her story could help others. But throughout the writing process, I kept having nightmares that I had succumbed to meth. I dreamed that I was locked inside a jail cell. I dreamed that a child was following me through cornfields, and we were both lost.
The week after the December intervention I noticed my mom standing before the mirror in the bathroom, wearing a thigh-length black skirt, black tights, and a white sweater with sparkles on it, like the fake holiday snow at the shopping mall. She was getting ready to go out, curling her hair as she gazed into the mirror. I had taken the ACT college-admissions test that morning and was still mulling over how I’d done best on the math section. Math was not my strong suit, but on standardized tests the answers to math problems felt more apparent than, say, the rules of English grammar, which seemed capricious and arcane.
“How’d you do on the test?” she asked without looking at me.
“Not as well as I thought I would,” I said. “I felt really stressed.”
And then I saw the developing bump on her otherwise slender frame. She was pregnant. I turned away.
“I’m sorry to hear that, honey,” she said.
The motorcycle meth-head said it was his baby, but no one really knew. And it didn’t matter. If it survived, the child’s life would be hard.
A few days after that, a friend of mine, who I would later learn was also tweaking on meth, came up to me at a highway diner. She had a Kamel Red Light between her fingers, the nails painted an edgy midnight blue.
“What exciting news!” my friend said, reaching out to hug me. “Your mom is going to have a baby!”
I stepped away and pressed my lips together. “It’s not a good situation,” I said.
My friend said she was sorry and walked out of the diner, eyes downcast.
My mom aborted the baby. Given the madness of her addiction, this felt like a sound choice.
Three years after the intervention, I had left home and was pulling all-nighters at the state college in Lincoln, where I heard Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album for the first time: his lonesome harmonica, and haunting songs of working-class America.
Over winter break I began having sex with a Spanish professor, though I didn’t know his occupation at the time; we’d failed to exchange résumés when we met online. One night he said something very odd: We were on the sofa, and he was telling me about Mexico, his homeland, and how hard it had been to learn English. Then he grew serious and said he needed to tell me something, and he didn’t want me to be afraid. “There’s a little boy that follows you,” he said. “I’ve seen him.”
“What are you talking about? What little boy?”
“He’s blond,” he said. “A little blond boy appears by your side every now and then.”
“OK,” I replied, moving to the other end of the sofa.
He refused to take the hint. “Did you have a little brother who died?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
That spring I found out what the professor did for a living when I walked into his class. He told me I couldn’t be his student. I said I couldn’t change my schedule. We decided we should just stop sleeping together, and we honored the agreement. I read Mexican folktales for his class. I discovered el duende, a spirit who knocks on the windows of naughty children. I learned about the ghost called La Llorona: In the version I read, a rich suitor courts a poor single mother and says he’ll marry her, but only if she drowns her kids in the river. She does, then dies and haunts the waterfront.
I got an A. I got A’s all through college. My GPA was perfect, the way my mom tried to be.
Around this time my mom was arrested and convicted for possession of meth. Her sentencing was reported in the local newspaper. One of the only other times she’d been in the newspaper was when a photographer had come to her Lamaze class while she was pregnant with me. In the picture that ran in the paper, she is holding her big belly and sitting cross-legged like a meditating yogi. Her eyes look downward, and her sandy-brown hair is draped over her shoulders. She hadn’t yet succumbed to the 1980s perm trend, though she would when I was a toddler. I remember her with big, permed hair, smoking in a shimmering blue swimsuit on the shore of one of the local “lakes” — an old gravel pit adjacent to the Platte River. She would drop her Marlboro Light 100 on the sand, the filter stained by her lipstick, and dive into the water to swim. I remember the mole on her back — a pretty birthmark right between her protruding shoulder blades. Three years old, I’d watch her recede into the distance. Her cousin later said that, when she swam away, I’d cry until my cheeks were red.
“Come back!” I’d scream.
It’s hard to know what is true memory and what is secondhand, but I believe I do remember her powerful arms taking her across the surface of the lake. Her body had an athleticism suited not so much for the short sprint but for the long haul.
Years later, after she’d been arrested for meth possession and sentenced, hometown friends would ask if that was my mom they’d read about in the newspaper.
“Yes,” I’d say.
“Well, we won’t say anything to anyone,” they’d reply.
“It’s already in the paper!” I’d say. “Tell anyone you want.”
In fact, I’d been keeping an eye on my hometown newspaper for information about my mom. I’d learned that her on-and-off boyfriend, the motorcycle meth-head, had broken her acoustic guitar over her head, leaving a gash that had required an emergency-room visit and several stitches. That story ran under the headline “Man Accused of Hitting Woman with Guitar.” The police, upon investigation, had found the broken instrument stashed in the attic.
In my junior year of college my mom went to prison — for months, not years. My sister’s boyfriend, who was Latino, spent two years in the state pen for meth. The justice system is lenient with white women like my mother.
In prison my mom refused visits from family. I believed she was ashamed. I knew this regardless of the walls separating us.
I picked up a self-help pamphlet on how to explain to children that a parent is behind bars. Though an adult, I felt a need to read it. The pamphlet referred to the incarcerated parent as “him,” as “Dad.” It advised family members to avoid making up lies to comfort kids, like “Dad is away for a while because he joined the Air Force.” But I made up a lie to the child within me. I told that kid Mom had gone away to the mountains; she’d been called to Buddhism. She was at the mountaintop, on the cusp of enlightenment, and could not be bothered with things down below.
I was below. I was the valley. So green.
In March, a few days after the spring equinox, I woke up late and looked at the time on my phone. Class was in forty-five minutes. Then I saw the date: my mom’s birthday.
From the floor I collected a pair of khakis she had bought me in high school, now ragged with holes, and I quickly dressed. From the window of the attic apartment I rented, I saw fog obscuring the golden dome of the Nebraska State Capitol. Its pinnacle, a statue of a sower, was hidden by the mist.
As I brushed my teeth, I wondered how my mom would spend her birthday. I imagined her in her cell, reading novels — probably Stephen King. His were the only novels I ever saw her read for pleasure. I imagined her writing letters — to whom, I’m not sure. I’d read the letters she had written to no one when she’d been deep into meth use — convoluted monologues, pages long, about how fucked up life was. Her neat, cursive penmanship flowed messily, like a wild river running off the page.
I missed her.
I rushed to my morning seminar in political economy. Waiting for the professor to start the lecture, I saw the university chancellor — a lanky legal scholar — walk into the room. The chancellor didn’t normally show up to morning classes for undergraduates. He called me to the front of the room.
What had I done wrong?
The next day a prison guard knocked on my mom’s cell door. She told me about it later. “Hey,” he said, “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
The guard tossed the newspaper from my hometown on the floor. My mom picked it up and opened it. There was a photo of me standing next to the university chancellor, alongside the story of how I’d won a national scholarship named for President Harry S. Truman, a working-class person who’d never graduated from college. Truman had not wanted a row of marble pillars or an aloof statue to memorialize him. He’d wanted a living monument. So he’d started a scholarship fund to give young Americans the opportunities he’d never had.
In a way, for my mom’s birthday, Harry Truman, the lanky university chancellor, and I were all visiting her in her prison cell. We were a day late, but — Surprise, Mom. The cramped quarters made it a bit awkward. Thankfully the guys bolted, and then it was just Mom and me, penned together in that moment, in that cell. Penned in by the meth addiction; by the reality that, for those of lesser means, the road to recovery is steeper and more unsure; by the knowledge that she would stay in the town where we’d both grown up, and I would move on, and my moving on would always hurt.
But right then, staring at the photo in the newspaper, she said, “Holy shit. I’m saving this.”
Jonathan Winston Jones
A mom smokes meth out of a Bic Round Stic pen in a Victorian house in Nebraska [“Penned,” Jonathan Winston Jones]. A juju priest settles an issue spiritually in Uyo, Nigeria [“The Devil Takes Back,” Blessing J. Christopher]. A fruit seller is fined for giving overripe fruit to “Crazy Mary” in Berkeley, California [Readers Write on “Trash,” Dale Anderson]. In Galway, Ireland, a smoker named Duke laughs, and it sounds like a “bad muffler” [“The River Corrib,” a short story by Mohan Fitzgerald]. Your exceptional January 2022 issue took me around the world. Thanks for the journey.