These writings are part of a larger autobiographical work and have been chosen due to their relevant connection to addiction. Like many people who have suffered trauma, I found it difficult to write a linear narrative. Instead, I’ve chosen to write encounters and vignettes that I hope will give an accurate image of the fragmented reality that is that of a person intimately connected with addiction, violence and poverty. It is my hope that my experience, and by extension, my family’s experience of addiction will connect with others in a way that reassures them “they are not alone in their suffering” (Sheff 326).
He often stood in the kitchen at night, doing various things that weren’t culinary-related. Tonight, I found him smoking. “What’re you doin’?” I asked, knowing exactly what he was doing. “Oh, I was, uh, talkin’ to Bud.” He tried to say he’d been standing in the doorway of the kitchen and the patio speaking to the neighbor, but I could smell the weed. “Smells like bud, for sure,” I said.
Once, he tried to make my stepmom, April, and I breakfast. It took nearly four hours. I didn’t mind because I was enjoying sitting on our big freezer, the warm sun shining through the yellow curtains and watching my dad try to roll out biscuit dough. April wasn’t pleased, though. “How much longer are you going to be? I’m starving”. “It sure don’t look like it,” he’d replied, not even bothering to look up from his misshapen biscuits.
“Why won’t you stay here?” He sounded sad. I’d rarely heard him express emotion, and briefly felt bad about making him feel upset. But it was the first time I’d been home in three years, and he’d begun to hoard. Dogs I’d never met nearly knocked me to the ground, beer bottles threatened to topple from every surface and partially eaten meals lay out on plates throughout the room. The stench of shit was overwhelming, and despite the pained look on his noticeably aged face, I booked a hotel.
He calls me up sometimes and tells me about the girls he’s seeing. April left a long time ago; she went to Alaska, the furthest place she could go to get away. He’s always so proud to tell me about his newest ‘friend’. I’m always driving when he calls.
One day it was sweltering, and we were all getting agitated from the heat, but he was agitated for another reason. “Where the fuck did you put it?” Nobody could answer him. “Put what?” At first, we had no idea what he meant. Then we realized he meant his Suboxone. He tore the house apart searching for it, sweating on the cushions of the couch as he ripped them out of their resting place. It had to be somebody’s fault. Probably mine. He eventually found it in the cab of his truck.
Even though he told me to start undressing in the bathroom instead of my bedroom, he came back with deck nails and a towel. “Don’t change in here no more.” “What?” He nailed up the towel over the window. “Go to the bathroom to change.” “Why?” The nails stuck out a good two inches. “Bud’s been watchin’ you,” as if that cleared everything up. When this didn’t stop Bud from peeping, my dad planted a privacy hedge. He went out and bought a six-foot Douglas fir, then planted it right beneath Bud’s living room window. The branches caressed the side of his house. Bud never said a word about it.
Daddy’s truck was school bus yellow. He bought it from the county education department, before they switched the buses to that lurid shade they are now. On the door the black outline of “Buncombe County Schools” was still visible under a shoddy cover up job. The inside smelled like leather and gasoline, like Daddy himself, only more vinyl-y. He always had cans of chemicals rattling around right behind the seat. As a kid, the name “Freon” terrified me – I was sure with every bump we’d blow up. When I was little, the pile of detritus on the passenger side boosted me up. Using his heap of drive-thru garbage and discarded legal papers I was able to see out the window. As I grew, his jumble became just as uncomfortable as the splits in the vinyl seats and more and more trash would fall out with me when I stepped out.
What a gross fuckin’ grin. He looked stupid. Looking at him, my mouth tasted coppery, like a green penny. He always acts differently when he gets high. Happier. Nicer. Dumber, if that were possible. I couldn’t help wondering if it helped such an ill-tempered guy be stupid-happy if it could help me feel something. I thought it would be harder than just stepping out of the kitchen onto the concrete slab outside. But once I stood beside him, he just offered me his one-hitter. After we shared a couple inhales, I felt a brief moment of camaraderie. Then his red face maneuvered itself into that grotesque smile and the moment was over.
Sticky peach syrup oozed over the edge of a casserole dish, finding its way to a charred demise at the bottom of the oven. My grandmother’s peach cobbler recipe had been disrespected. WWII documentary blaring in the background, a bottle of brown party liquor beside him, and the remnants of dinner being eaten by an appreciative pooch, my dad was laying on the couch. He’d made a habit of passing out early; after all, liquor is quicker. I’d come home to find pots of food beginning to rot that had been left out on the stove, cobbler burning in the oven, and an effectively vacant house. Padding through the house barefoot was impossible; at the bare minimum socks were necessary protection from the sludge that coated the floor. Only the dogs themselves were clean, save their paws and peach-coated muzzles.
Last time I saw him, he looked gaunt. He’s a real tall fella, but thin like he’d never been before. His hair was thinning too. I’d never been able to get my arms all the way around him in a hug before, but now his beer belly was gone, and suddenly I had worry. He told me he’d been paying a doctor all the way over in Johnsonville, Tennessee to “cure” his diabetes. He said he’s spent nearly fifteen hundred dollars so far. I was pissed.
Then we went to a bar and I got him a burger.
I had managed to croak out “Mama” as tears welled in my eyes. It had been nearly three years since we had last seen each other. She looked like a shrunken voodoo doll, shriveled up underneath her oversized, scruffy winter coat. I have no idea how she manages to find clothes that look as worn as she does. Her embrace smelled like cigarettes and Tresemme. Then she started to cry, and my tears mercifully dried up. I moved to put my luggage in the car but was halted by all of the stuff she had crammed into the vehicle. I wondered how she could possibly even see out the back window over the lawn furniture, mail, clothes and magazines piled up into a gigantic heap. My curiosity was satisfied quickly as we started moving and she asked me to stick my head out the window to check for on-coming traffic.
“What is that?” I asked, wrinkling my nose at the creature within our freezer whose feathers had become encrusted in ice. “It’s a buzzard,” my mom whispered in a hushed, conspiratorial tone. “But don’t tell nobody.” She began to walk off, but I trailed. “Why not?” “We ain’t suppose to have it. They’re endangered.” She brushed me off like I should’ve known this fact; still, I persisted. “Why do you have it then?”, which was a stupid question but one for which I needed an answer. I found it was the only response I ever got, even though the creature found its unholy residence within our porch freezer for several years.
On mornings that bit, or when my mom had forgotten to dry our clothes, she’d often put my school outfits into the microwave. Most people know not to put metal into the microwave, but what many people don’t know is that you can put metal into the microwave if that metal is a button and it’s covered by a hefty layer of shitty Walmart jean. Once that layer dries off, though, you’ve gotta be ready to pull the door open to prevent the machine from frying. I often went to school slightly damp, cold and smelling like stroganoff.
“Only one beer”
That’s what she always says. And I always believed her, because who can tell when the beer cans end up buried beneath the rest of the garbage and semi-functional alcoholics feign sobriety effectively enough.
I’m not sure whether the mental illness came before the drug use or the drug use came before the mental illness, but it isn’t really relevant in the end. I hadn’t realized how bad off she was until I walked into the basement and was clobbered by the scent of urine emanating from upstairs. Never before have I seen a sight like before, and for hours after I was left shaking. Useless.
A sharp exhale, an exaggerated pause. “What’s wrong?” “I just had a panic attack,” she casually explained while fishing out an oblong yellow tablet from her purse. We were sitting in her grimy Toyota that smelled like fish (just like she did), waiting for a McDonald’s worker to bring out our Happy Meals. I wondered what was stressing her out.
April’s mom was named Georgina, and she looked like it. She was a sturdy woman with hair toughened by bleach and a nose roughed by a smart mouth. When April and my dad got married, she got drunk. Although I’d only just met her that morning, and had never met her ex-husband, April’s father, she felt it necessary to list all of his various indiscretions. Holding me tightly, for support or to prevent escape, I don’t know, she let me in on everything I ought to know, apparently. Closely, exuding the same rum I’d been filching with my friend from her pores, she hissed “I found him in the warehouse with his pants down.” She warned me never to get married, although I later learned she’s on her fourth. She encouraged me to join the Navy, for some indeterminate reason. The involuntary dialogue was wrapped up nicely when she informed me that my mother was also an adulterer, at least according to what my father must’ve been telling my new step-mother. Eventually husband #4 pulled her away, and I sought solace at the originator of our interaction – the punch table.
Craigslist is Killer
My dad met April on Craigslist. Neither of them was sober very often, but at least April had a reason – she’d been drowning herself since she escaped the waters of Katrina. They texted for a while after she responded to his “tall, dark, and handsomee (sic)” ad. Then one night she got plastered while on a bad date with someone else. She called my dad from the bathroom stall, begging him to come pick her up. When he asked her, “where?” she bemoaned “I don’t know where I’m at.” A helpful lady the next stall over told her “Oh honey, you’re at Hickory Tavern.” So off Daddy went, and they began their six-year stint.
When I moved to New Orleans, April met my mom half-way, in Peachtree City, Georgia to pick me up. It was my third time meeting her and then we rode seven hours together. Immediately, their ramshackle house unnerved me, despite it not being much worse than where we’d lived in North Carolina. You could see patches of dirt through the worn floorboards. After we got in, I didn’t see my dad for two weeks. Occasionally April said he was home but sleeping. She said he was worn from working offshore. I’d never been so worn out I’d slept more than twenty-four hours. Then again, I was sober.
When I was fourteen, I was jazzed to get my own room. People had been bounced in and out of what had been my room, forcing me to either seek refuge elsewhere or share. Then Georgina commandeered my room and I was relegated to the couch. Shortly, however, I discovered much of my dad’s RV was unused and I set about making it livable. Soon I had clean sheets and was hooked up to the electricity via a system of extension cords that was definitely a fire hazard. My RV home had a broken lock and I had to traverse from the backyard to the house to pee. Nobody noticed my disappearance. I had solace.
Everybody drinks at Mardi Gras. Age is, largely, irrelevant to the festivities. And it is often a family event to get heavily intoxicated together at parades. My family did so. The spring I was seventeen we made a day of parades that started out mild, both in weather and sobriety. But by mid-afternoon our temperaments were beginning to match those of everyone around us, and we’d begun to ooze out into the crowd, away from the camp we’d carefully staked out that morning. The most important point came for me when the king’s float approached, and this year it happened to be that the king was Hugh Laurie. I was determined to get beads from him, and my family had coached me on how. So, I edged my way to the front of the crowd, further and further from the safety of our coolers and camping chairs. As Hugh came into sight it was apparent he was probably the most intoxicated person present. For a brief moment, I was sure I’d caught his eye and the beads that came flying my way validated this inebriated conviction. Unfortunately, as my fingers brushed them in the air, a young man’s fist rather forcefully brushed my face. In my excitement and haste, I hadn’t noticed that I’d walked into what had become a drunken tussle amongst Tulane students. I went down. The last thing I recall before waking up on top of our Styrofoam cooler full of crawfish were two angry uncles stumbling towards the boys.
As the jaundiced streetlamp, my nightlight, filtered in through the bedroom window I tried to slink further into an unforgiving mattress. I thought I’d be safe from the threats outside if I wasn’t visible. But even as I suffocated myself under the heavy comforter, breathing in only hot, musty air, Bud’s voice and promises of a fiery doom still poured in. I could almost sense the foam around his mouth as he screamed at my dad, assuring Daddy he’d burn down our house. I never learned what had set him off. I thought about it all the next day sitting in Mrs. Esterling’s third-grade class.
“Who steals soap?”
April just shrugged. After all, she’d been the one to let the crack addict into the house.
“She offered to help me clean,” April responded by way of explanation.
Phyllis, the bubble bandit in question, is married to Bud and together they engage in crack cocaine. Occasionally, Bud will also act as Phyllis’ pimp. She had come in and stolen a bulk pack of Dial soap. Maybe she needed it more than we did.
For my seventh birthday my Papaw gave me a small leather bag containing smooth rocks. They were just shiny river rocks, but I thought of them as gemstones, probably because I’d never seen a real gemstone. I’d sit out on my dad’s porch and play with the rocks, piling them on top of each other. Naming them. They each had distinct personalities. Their shape conferred these to them.
From the porch I could see Phyllis walk from her house to the sidewalk, get inside cars that went away for a few minutes and then go back inside her house. Throughout the afternoon this would happen several times, sometimes with quick succession. Each car was different. Although, eventually, I began to recognize the cars. Sometimes they would come by every couple of days. Some Phyllis would stay gone with longer, and some she’d just sit there in the car outside the house for a few minutes. Sometimes, I couldn’t see Phyllis in the car at all even though she’d just gotten in.
I woke up and couldn’t find my teeth. In sluggish desperation I knocked over the peroxide bottle and wailed for my mom. Apparently, I’d left my wisdom teeth in the bottle cap and passed out -- they’d dissolved in the solution overnight. Devastation set in. Mama assumed it was residual pain from the surgery and asked where I was keeping my Vicodin, helpfully dosing me into a forgetful slumber. I was fifteen and had instantly recognized that was the sensation I’d been chasing for years.
Swirling around without moving, staring through a kaleidoscope without opening my eyes. The bed kept engulfing me, deeper, deeper. It felt like I’d never stop sinking down and I worried I might even drown. It took a while to register hands on my thighs. Kye and Mack didn’t even notice one another touching me until they met at my stomach. We all shared a glance and they kept going. Eyes closed, I went back to my kaleidoscope. After, we all watched Finding Nemo and ate Cheerios without milk as the colors chilled.
Don’t Fuck Neighbors
Aunt Sarah mated with and married the neighbor, Rex. Our two families have lived on the same driveway for decades; Daddy and his brothers grew up playing with Rex. A few years ago, Daddy told me Rex’s origin story.
My dad said his stepdad, Paul Clyde, Sarah’s daddy, had told him this story. It went like this: Clyde Sr. had taken Rex’s grandmama down by the train tracks one day for a risqué encounter. Unfortunately, some women from church happened upon them and promised to reveal Mr. Gasperson’s misdeed. Using adulterous ingenuity, Clyde Sr. took his wife to the same spot. The next Sunday, when the meddling biddies told his wife they had seen him frolicking by the tracks, she responded pridefully, “Oh, yes you did.”
Although not the focus of the story, it was to be gathered that Rex had been begotten by the former interaction.
I brought this up to Aunt Sarah recently. “We” joked about whether my little cousin, Barrett’s, autism could’ve been caused by his own discordant conception. We decided “no”. We moved on to discuss whether she’d ever tell him that he is technically inbred. I thought she must know the story since she knows she’s related to Rex, so I brought it up. She had apparently found the relation out when Rex mentioned his cousin – someone who happened to be a mutual second cousin to them both. She verified this via her mother’s sister, who was surprised she didn’t know. I’m not sure who was more shocked – me, thinking our family wasn’t actually forged out of duplicity and adultery, or Sarah, considering for the first time her relation to Rex wasn’t purely accidental. Regardless, Barrett’s roots will remain tangled.
Down by the river my dad took me to meet a man named Jesse Brown, a mechanic. A sketchy one. He operated out of a derelict shop in the River Arts District. Jesse Brown forged my registration and charged only ten dollars. I got a fifteen second stare after I told him I was studying anthropology and planned on going to law school; I could tell he thought I was getting too big for my britches. He had looked me up and down in a way that makes you want to burn your own clothes. Finally, he had released his squint and made a comment about how there’s always money in law.
“Did you ever have Sea Monkeys when you were a kid?” I asked my step-brother, Cody. I’d just moved into my own place and he’d just been convicted of felony marijuana possession.
“Yeah, they’re just brine shrimp, ya know? Max and I used to watch ‘em swim around in their ‘lil tank. I think we tried to dye the water, and then they died.”
“Catherine got me some once. I loved ‘em. They lived for a real long time.”
We sat together in silence, watching my fuzzy television screen amplify our own distorted vision. I’d almost forgotten our conversation when I suddenly realized!
“Do you wanna go to Toys ‘R’ Us? We could buy Sea Monkeys!” excitedly, my previously inert body now had something to propel it.
It took us forty-five minutes to complete the twenty-minute drive, but it was worth it. We found a vessel that looked like Mars, and it was the most exciting thing we’d experienced. That night we just knew we could see the monkeys hatch and swim happily around. We were entranced.
It took a couple weeks for them to actually come to life. Then the heat went out in my apartment, and we both froze.
Why We Need Blood Tests
Patricia was real nice, tall with long red hair and she always smelled clean. She would brush my hair and help me braid it before bed when I stayed with her and my dad. After my parents divorced, she was one of the first ones my dad introduced me to, aside from Tanya, the crazy lady who worked at the body shop up the street and would leave sweet pea body spray in the bathroom. Tricia taught me that if you heat up the water before you add sugar to Kool-Aid it would dissolve quicker; at seven, I thought it was magic.
One day my dad started staying at his house again, and I didn’t see Patricia anymore. He told me she’d “runned off to South Carolina to find herself” and that she’d hooked up with one of her lady friends, the one who had the hot tub.
Turns out, she’d gone over to Pigeon Forge, TN for a while to escape the fact that she’d accidentally been dating her third cousin. Coincidentally, they found out through their mechanic, Jesse Brown, who happened to know both their parents (and family, singular, apparently).
You’re not supposed to have chickens within city limits and you’re really not supposed to neglect chickens, if you do have them. These restraints did not stop my dad. Eventually, he did build them a coop, a habitat that was slightly nicer than our house. Granted, on a smaller scale.
Before seeing these tiny dinosaurs, I didn’t know that animals would straight up cannibalize each other while still alive. But right there, before my eyes, were chickens walking around with chunks missing and others had nuggets of flesh hanging from their beaks. When the city took the critters away, Daddy actually tried litigation. He argued that he cared for them properly. He pointed to his heated coop. They pointed to the hunks in beaks. The birds didn’t come back.
In my abnormal psychology class, a girl with long, straight dark hair and lip piercings sat in front of me. For weeks, I was too nervous to talk to her. Finally, she joined in on one of my conversations and I learned her name was Jordan. Eventually, I got the nerve up to ask her out. I took her to a live showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was entranced. She seemed amused.
After a few weeks, Jordan introduced me to some of her friends. They weren’t like my friends.
We spent a lot of time with a guy named Kye, somebody I’ve come to realize she knew very well. At one point, I went to dinner with my mom and described Kye. Between shoving sushi in my mouth, I made excited motions with my hands, saying “He’s a ball of anxiety. Like the static from TV, ya know? He’s like that. He’s a walking ball of that white and black, always moving, fuzzy, anxiety.” I think my mom thought I was on drugs. I wasn't. Not right then.
Kye sold acid. That’s why he was so nervous, he’d burnt himself out by doing too much. He could no longer feel things properly. Anxiety and a visceral anger seemed to overtake him sometimes to the point of tears.
One day, Kye called me and begged me for money. He said all needed was a hundred and twenty-five dollars and he’d get it back to me in a week. He was desperate. There was crying. I met him at McDonald’s. The next day, he was at my apartment and seemed fine. He left me a copy of The Great Gatsby.
Later that night Jordan came over to watch B-horror films and order pizza. She flipped through his book and started laughing; I figured she must’ve read it before and had gotten to an amusing section. No. Kye had left a surprise. He’d left LSD within the pages. “He did say he’d pay you back quickly, didn’t he?” She was hysterical.
It took me a while to figure out what to do with the unexpected settlement.
“I’m tellin’ you. She walked in, found Curtis dead, and just decided to torch the fuckin’ place.”
Aunt Sarah was skeptical.
“Seriously. She was three months behind on the mortgage, had just paid the insurance about a week before and had left Abbey and Curtis in the house for months so cat shit and piss was everywhere. She couldn’t deal -- she just torched it. And, she used black magic.”
I couldn’t tell whether the black magic is where I won Sarah over or lost her.
“You know, if she was that overwhelmed, I can understand why she’d do something like that. I used to work with this lady. A few years younger than me, had two little kids. This was before I had Barrett. I worked with her for years, and then one day, she just up and left. No idea where she went, she just dipped.”
“Did she take the kids?”
“Did she have a husband?”
“Yeah. But what I’m sayin’ is, I understand if she was just so overwhelmed and she couldn’t handle it. I felt like that right after I had B. Those late nights, when you’re sleep deprived, you gotta feed those things almost constantly, I understood why she did what she did. I didn’t before. But once I had him I did.”
“So, you believe me?” I had been sitting on the edge of the couch the entire time, eyes wide, trying to convey my sincerity and belief in my mother’s arson and occult participation.
“Yeah, dude. Especially if she was that far behind in the mortgage and she’d just paid the insurance. I’m not gonna say she did it, but you’ve got some compelling evidence.”
“I fuckin’ told you, man.”
It’s amazing the things that don’t burn in a house fire. Even as metal roofs bend beneath the heat and glass doors turn to resemble melted plastic, beloved photos survive only slightly tinged, baby teeth make it unscathed and tufts from first haircuts are left neatly bundled in their ribbons.
Things that were meant to be secret are revealed by the flame’s prowess. Empty pregnancy test boxes that had been underneath the mattress wait for someone to move the ash around and unearth the still bright blue and pink box. Ancient Playboys still lurk in the nightstand that no longer exists. Jars of spices are left lined up neatly while the bathtub lies knocked on its side. Despite the destruction that took nearly everything, there are still remnants of the life that had been held here.
“It’s Always Worse When A Hoarder’s House Burns Down”
“Plenty of fuel.” His crimson face laughed like he’d just made the funniest joke.
“It’s not fucking funny.”
“Well hell it is. Ain’t nothing you can do about it now.”
I just walked away from my dad.
I know she didn’t do it. Sometimes it’s just easier to tell yourself someone is at fault, to believe someone did something tangible to cause a tragedy that really, no one caused. The things that have no explanation are the hardest to deal with.
Words are complicated, and experiences unique. I’ve attempted to speak to what I have experienced and put into words the emotions that may arise through similar situations. I do not portend to speak for those in my stories, nor do I intend to portray them in a negative manner; I wish to make it clear that these are vignettes, moments, and do not capture people as a whole. Still, they capture my feelings, and it is my hope that there is someone who is able to identify with my experience.