It was January 3rd, 2011.
It’s an easy date to remember. Right after New Years.
We couldn’t find any smoke – and folk who say smoke ain’t a gateway drug are lying to themselves.
Some of us have a silent dragon stalking us our entire lives – and it wants to free itself. It wants to devour all it can – it wants to clean out our bank accounts.
It’s alive and we act like it ain’t there. I use to look back at drinking with a bit of a twinkle in my eye – I used to tell folk with anxiety to drink because it’d calm ’em down – that was horrible advice but I didn’t know any better.
It was parasitic.
I seen someone get stabbed before, seen someone get thrown through a window, seen an uncle kick his old lady square in the crotch and watched three of my cousins jump him shortly after – the sort of hell that came from boozin’ was well known to me. I can’t even scratch the surface but the rednecks and natives know how bad it can get – and you can too if you’ve ever seen the chair fight in Gummo.
Alcohol creates community, it creates life, it creates meaning, creates chaos, it’s an unstoppable force and it sits on the shelves of liquor stores all across this country. I’ve seen too much – seen what it does to us – seen many relatives lose their lives because of it and that didn’t sway me.
I drank anyway. Waited longer than most of my friends and relatives. Drank some whiskey on the other side of the state. Friend was having band practice so we stayed overnight. I said “Fuck it”. And nothing bad happened.
And that first time in the white man’s basement wasn’t the beginning of the end. It was a pleasant experience. My vision changed and the world felt nice. A warmth came over me.
Somewhere out in the multiverse I only drank the one time and walked away unscathed. Unmarked. But that ain’t the universe I woke up in.
Ain’t the one I marched head first towards.
We’re a toxic people. That’s the truth. We’re toxic. We hate success – we hate seeing other people succeed.
January 3rd was in no way special as far as I could tell. Just another winter day. We didn’t know anyone with any hook ups. I’m talkin’ five dollar joints of brick weed. The kind that popped and sang as seeds burned up. But it was too late and we were already addicted to it. And we sought it out – over and over – sought it out. Because I was a music fan and there ain’t no better way to listen to music than while you’re stoned.
I called up a friend. Figured we’d cruise town and do some searchin’ – waste some time.
A blizzard came through a week before and fucked up the smoke-flow. Massive snowstorm, massive pain in the ass. Fifteen foot high snow piles at the corner of each street.
We called up everyone we could think of – stopped by every house we could think of and no one had shit. My friend and I were fiends that lacked the self awareness needed to see that we had an addiction.
Eventually we get a phone call from a relative. Says he needs a ride south of town.
We pick him up. Formerly fat fella. Another lost soul like us – maybe a bit further a long.
Cast and characters: you had me – I was a smooth talkin’ ball of neurosis – you got my buddy, we’ll call him Yellow Eagle, always tried to talk with a smile – a people person of sorts – then you had my cousin, we’ll call him Jane because that feels appropriate.
Now south of town’s a bit odd because it’s not really south of town if you think about it. It’s really east of town – at a certain point it angles the other direction. Took me twenty five years before I noticed it.
Two mile stretch of highway. Quiet place. Plenty of ghosts wandering that road. Plenty of people die out there. Walking between communities, drunk. Hell, one of my dad’s pallbearers died a few months after my old man. Smoked out by a vehicle while walking back to his community.
I wonder if the ghosts are complete or do they turn into sentient slabs of meat, bones, and eyes?
Isolated community and folk walk back and forth between there and town all the time. Keeps them in shape. Well, sort of. Okay not really. Lot of big Indians who get more than enough cardio. I’m guessing it’s because of the forty ounces. Lot of carbs in those fuckers.
Yellow Eagle’s charm is good but it ain’t as good as it could be. Jane and him work at the grocery store. Talkin’ shop and smokin’ cigarettes.
Got a four door car. Dodge Intrepid, and if the path smiles upon me, and gifts me with money I will buy a new one someday. Because the thing handled on ice like a beast – which is quite different compared to the vehicle I use now. That damn thing doesn’t move in the winter.
We drop Jane off – and before he goes Yellow Eagle speaks up, “Hey killer!” Jane walks back to the car, “You know where we can score any smoke?” The guy stands up for a moment and looks around before leaning back in, “Nah man. Dry out. Here. Take this instead.” – He hands us a plastic bag and leaves.
Reverse. And head back into town. “What is it? How much he give you?” Yellow Eagle looks between his legs. “Tilt. He gave us two cans.”
“Well shit. That’s like… street people booze ain’t it?”
“It’s also all we got after searching for a few hours.”
“What do you want to do?”
We parked in my community. Dead end street with the heat cranked. Had a relative get alcohol poisoning in sixth grade. My middle name came from my ma’s uncle – said he used to put alcohol pads into a cup of water, let it soak awhile – then he’d drink it. Pops said grandma found my uncle blue in a trailer outside their house. Said my other uncle’s liver got all swollen – died in a hospital. I watched my uncle spray WD-40 in his mouth before leaving for the last time – saw him laying dead under a blanket near the powwow ground behind a crowd of ambulances and cop cars – hit and run.
Folk talk about natives having a genetic predisposition towards alcoholism and they are absolutely right. But there’s another side to this dance – nature and nurture. We’re tasked with an immense burden – to carry all the horrors we’ve seen – to carry that and transmute it into something beneficial. And that’s harder than you can imagine – there are multiple gyres spinning under the surface – lines and traumatic memories – scars that stretch and hurt – to gather enough strength, to make it out unscathed, to make it out a good person, a morally good person – it’s impossible.
Trauma begets trauma, horror begets horror, hurt begets hurt – and it’s harder than you can imagine because it doesn’t happen at once.
It happens over time. Over years. And those little moments of sorrow go and fade – a bad dream, a nightmare forgotten soon after – and we can live while pushing those memories away but they fight back. We are haunted by our actions and the actions of others. Now and forever.
Cracked the windows and an immense cold descends upon the interior. “Well shit. Lets do this then.” Yellow Eagle cracked the can and took a shot. Passed it to me. Blue. Sweet – much too sweet. Metallic. Used my tongue and pressed it up against the roof of my mouth – to force the drink to the back of my throat as fast as possible. And when it goes down you hold your breath for a moment or two. Twelve percent ABV. The cans are warm. After two shots a piece the pace quickens. We’re downing these things faster than we should. One can – two cans.
I gave away my soul in that moment – I invited devils into my psyche – I invited in ghosts that will never leave.
My stomach warmed up. I lowered my head and took in the moment. This is what damnation feels like. This begins a new cycle – and on the other side will be failure and death. You will need strength now, nephew, because your life will get much, much worse. You had an opportunity once, you had a path out once, and you should have taken it. Neptune clouds the stars and the underworld shakes from It’s slumber. I’ll see you on the other side – I’ll see you in seven years.
“You say something?”
“What? No. It’s nothing. Let’s go for a cruise.”
Ain’t no designated drivers around here. No traffic either. It’s the simple life. Going from my place to Yellow Eagle’s was one straight away, a left turn, straight, a left turn. Simple.
Gettin’ my driver’s license was too easy. Too easy because the town’s too small. Ain’t no traffic. No stoplights. Nothin’. To this day I still get white knuckled pulling off the interstate and into the city.
“So you drink now huh?”
“I wouldn’t say that – man. I like it though.”
“I got a bit upset when they told me you drank out in Vermilion. You should’ve done that shit with me, man.”
“It was in the moment – always in the moment. Do what you can while you can. Do what you do.
“Scares me though. It feels too good. I’m smiling for the first time in a long time. I’m shaking. I want to go for a walk. I want to be around people. I want to make small talk with a stranger…”
“Hey… drunk guy – had a can of booze and now he’s acting all easy.”
We both put on our native accents. Haggard things – slow speaking – like a developmentally challenged Wisconsinite.
“Hey You doe-n’t even know me hey.”
Our dads were boozers in the old days. Friends. Yellow Eagle’s died young – shortly after having his second son. Pops said once while driving that ways his car tire popped off where the guy died. Said he got out and heard the guy calling his name. Said it scared the shit out of him. Grabbed the tire and put it on as quick as possible and got the hell out of there.
I don’t want to believe in ghosts. I want to be an atheist. I want to rest knowing that there ain’t no grand ending – just a long slumber. The longest slumber.
Yellow Eagle’s phone rings.
“Yeah. Yeah hold up.” He puts the phone against his shirt, “Hey. Jane wants a ride back into town – you down or what?”
Lift my hand to see my gas gauge.
“Yeah fuck it – tell him we’ll be there in ten.”
“Yeah we’ll be down.”
“What you think he went down there for?”
“Fuck if I know. He sound drunk or what?”
“Fuck. When isn’t he?”
“Eee… rugged guy. Can’t take him NO Where!”
“Jayte – can’t even take him to church!”
Jane lost all the weight over a summer by riding his bike everywhere. He wasn’t particularly bright but managed to win homecoming king. Which wasn’t really a victory in any way. He was a special ed kid – I don’t know if he was stupid, maybe he wasn’t. I think he was just lazy but you never can tell with those kinds.
Antisocial since day one. And the teachers just pass ’em right along so they’ll be out the door sooner. Jane was shacking up with a waitress – she too was a special ed type of person. She won homecoming queen. It was a joke that everyone was in on. Jane was an obvious fuck up and his old lady was… well they were special.
They were both addicts before their lives began. A true small town romance – with the possibility of true longevity. Find a partner – have a kid, both of you work a job until the day one of you dies. Live in an apartment or trailer. Indulge in an addiction or two or ten. Codependency.
“Can you believe those two already have their own place?”
“Fuckin’ tell me about it. Those fuckers just lapped us as far as this whole adult-thing goes. Good on ’em.”
A thick miasma followed Jane into the car. Vodka. Burned the nose. And he was louder than usual – and his sentences weren’t ending right. He was drunk as fuck.
“Hey you boys still lookin’ for some smoke or what?”
Yellow Eagle’s eyes lit up.
“Yeah. Hell yeah – why you know someone.”
“I know someone. My Wee-uh.”
(Wee-uh meaning old lady)
“Just drop me off at the apartment then. I’ll get you boys stoned.”
Last summer Jane drove a friend’s car through town. Broke a hundred mph. The guy had a death wish. But who doesn’t? Ain’t much to live for around here anyways. And so what if an innocent dies? Life ain’t made for everyone and that’s not too hard to accept. Jane started drinking too young and that wasn’t an unusual thing. Some folks carry that black cloud with them everywhere they go and you can feel it on them. We had a guy drink a traveler of vodka throughout morning classes. Stood up. Walked to the trash can and threw the jug away. Never came back – could be dead by now. Moving cycles of hurt – wounds that never heal – hardwired to the divine, to anything that’ll change reality in a concrete way.
Jane led the way through the parking lot. I stepped with light feet cause I don’t have too good of luck when it comes to ice. Fluorescent lights and stale air. Runny nose and chapped lips. Apartment seven. First floor. Door opens up. Living room set up like a bedroom – bed where the couch would be. Two bedroom place. Jane had an authoritative, yet clearly sloshed walk about him. Commanding yet subordinate. He showed us respect for no reason other than us being a bit older. He motions to the bathroom – “Smoke with my cousins.” He plops himself down on the mattress. “Don’t forget the towel either!”
His broad was a meek one. Shit I don’t even feel comfortable calling her his broad – she seemed more like a captive.
The house had an ugly aura about it – a palace of misfortune. Yellow Eagle looked back as we followed Anne into the bathroom – Jane was spraying deodorant into a brown paper bag. The door shut behind us and you could hear his loud inhales from the other side. Then a sad song started playing over the tv and he cranked it up – drunkenly singing along.
Anne placed a towel under the door and turned the fan on. She had an angular face and dark skin. Dark hair. “Hey. You still working at the old folks home, Sherman?” She always sounded like her nose was stuffed. Beady eyes behind glasses. “Yeah – yeah. Going on four years now. Everything’s the same. Always the same.” Her hands cradle the joint from the outside world. Sparks it up. She takes a hit and you can hear the paper burning. The rotation starts and Yellow Eagle takes a hit – “What’s up with homeboy… That guy always get this rowdy?
“Was he huffing?”
She adjusts her glasses and sniffs in. “Yeah. He’s a good for nothing.”
I started feeling ugly. I took a hit and another wave of warmth slowly crept over my body.
Jane pounded on the door – hard. “You better have a towel under that thing!”
He walks into an empty bedroom and grabs a stashed away jug of vodka. He takes a large guzzle of it with no chaser. Sees himself reflected in the window. Sees the neighbor’s house – big house. Two stories with a basement garage. Rock wall lining the outside. Water tower looming over this dirt hole town. He takes another swig and nearly pukes. Holds it in. “Fuckin’ bitch.”
He stumbles back into the living room, jug in hand. Pull after pull. He’s hunched over. Melody and sad lyrics hidden behind driving drums and a sweep-picked guitar solo. There’s a fire raging inside of him. A hatred for the world – an undifferentiated psychic blob of red hot energy surrounded by a “pull-into-the-void”. His hands reach back to the spray-on deodorant and he unleashes another ten second burst into a paper bag. In! Breathe in! Breathe in and hold!
The smokes burned down to a roach – there’s still some left but I don’t like staying around and I don’t want to stay around. Anne passes the stick to me but I motion towards Yellow Eagle. He takes a few more hits and I give him a quick glance. He takes the hint.
“Well shit. Thanks for the smoke out.” Anne puts it out. “Sure. Sure thing.” Yellow Eagle opens the door and leads us towards freedom.
Jane’s lips are noticeably wet – pushed outwards, red – the look of a drunk asshole and the apartment stinks of cheap perfume. “Hey!” We stop in our tracks as if we’re about to get scolded by an angry parent. We turn around, putting on a visage of strength. “Yeah what’s going on, man?” He drains the last of his vodka down into his gut – “She smoke you boys up or what?”
“Hell yeah man, thanks for hookin’ it up. We’re bouncin’.”
“Yeah man, see you at work.”
I look at Yellow Eagle and speak under my breath, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Yeah hold up.”
“Yes?” She spoke with voice of genuine concern.
“Say you or your old man wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette or two would you?”
She took out her purse and dug around for a moment. Jane looked up from a micro-nap. “Hey! Did she smoke you boys up or what?”
“Yeah man. We’re heading out now.”
(It’s all good.)
Yellow Eagle answered back, “Wash-tay-yell-oh”
We were out the door and I didn’t want to look back.
“You think we’re cowards?”
Yellow Eagle was busy lighting up his cigarette.
“What? Us? Why would I think that?” Out in the winter air and I’m pushing away the need to shiver. Yellow Eagle speaks again, “For Jane getting fucked up? Shit – I told you he was no good. Listen, man. There’s nothing we can do about that, shit man. Guy’s off and she’s with him.
“What do you want us to do? I sure as shit ain’t gonna save anyone and I sure as shit ain’t gonna make any changes myself.
“It is what it…”
The sound of metal and a loud thud.
Jane sticks his head out the bedroom window.
I turn around. “Yeah man, what’s up.”
“I mean it man, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m…”
To this day I don’t know what the fuck he was sorry about. Maybe it was some shit from when we were younger. Maybe it was some shit I didn’t know about yet. Or maybe it was an intimation. An intimation of all the nonsense that two cans of tilt would lead me towards over the next decade.
I yell back, “Don’t worry about it!”
“Close that fuckin’ window – you didn’t pay for propane!”, yelled Anne.
“Yeah WELL FUCK YOU TOO!”
Music bled out of the apartment and into the dead streets. Bickering. Bickering and then the window slams shut.
“Bitches, amirite or amirite?”
I let out a quick burst of laughter.
“Yeah I guess, man. I guess.”
“Here – Sherman Hemsley, maybe this will make you feel better.” He hands over a lit cigarette.
“And if that doesn’t work I got this too.”
He flashed another can of tilt at me.
“The fuck did you get that from?”
“Stole it from their kitchen.”
“Listen Sherman – I guarantee you that taking a can of beer ain’t the worst thing happening in this town tonight.
“Plus homeboy drank a pint of vodka and huffed body spray in the ten minutes we were there – I HIGHLY doubt he’s going to be missing a can of beer. Plus they live like… a five minute walk from the corner store.”
“What if it was Anne’s?
“I know I’d need to be stoned and plastered to put up with that guy.”
“Noooo – I’m just joking.
“Them types don’t need to be fucking.
“That’d just make more of them. And there’s enough of them around already.”
“Sam. You make a valid point.”
“Shit yeah I do. Let’s take a walk and drink this thing. Town’s deader than shit anyway.”
“Slam it or what?”
“That’s the plan.”
We strolled to the back of the apartments. A gazebo. Iced over railings. Yellow Eagle reached over and unplugged the Christmas lights so we could drink without being out in the open.
“This the drunkest you’ve ever been or what?” He gives a small nod in my direction and passes the can to me. My shivering hands take it from him – still heavy. Still too sweet. Still too metallic. Breathe out. “You know what… It is.”
“I like it.
“I really like it.”
Sam takes a big as shit swig and I do the same. We drain the thing in two pulls a piece. It settles in my gut.
“Cheaper than smoke too.
“What we drank tonight? That shit’s cheaper than two joints. Hell for two joints we could’ve got another can and I’m already feeling this shit.
“Something to think about.”
“Yeah. What about you – you drink much?”
“Maybe a handful of times out of the year.”
“We should start.”
“You think? Second time drinking and he’s already an alcoholic”
“Why not? Cheaper than smoke. Feel’s pretty good. Better than good.
“Don’t have to do it everyday. Maybe every payday. Make it a celebration.”
“My payday or yours?”