Even purely recreational consumption involved junkie procedures, which during Larry’s therapeutic use became a near-religious ceremony. He always lit the Ikea brand tea candle with a match, inhaling the sulfuric vapors nasally. He washed his hands with Bath & Body Works Gentle Foaming antibacterial hand soap before flattening out a quilted Bounty paper towel then itemizing the gear on it: Q-tip cotton swab; a fresh 31-gauge, .5cc, 5/16-inch (8mm) needle BD Ultrafine II Insulin Syringe; an aluminum measuring teaspoon, soot-black on its convex side.
He’d refinished his parent’s basement one summer while living there between jobs. The bathroom was all-new and still smelled faintly like paint and the medicine cabinet’s wood laminate. The Bounty laid on the cabinet’s underhung shelf, one side pinned by a 16 fl. oz. CVS 90% rubbing alcohol bottle and the opposite side weighted under a yellow Bic lighter. The bathroom light was high-intensity 100-watt clinically bright white. He’d left the television playing upstairs. He could hear the actors’ voices but could not make out their lines. He tried to guess what they were saying but couldn’t, and that bothered him, and he took it as a sign his imagination was diminished.
He took his time, enjoying the prep and process. He was in no hurry. It’s like getting high was as narcotizing as being high. Striking matches and relishing sulfur smoke and opening rubbing alcohol bottles and smelling ethyl fumes were its own kind of rush, a flood of natural adrenaline and dopamine ringing euphorically in his limbic system, an irony that did not go unnoticed in the later years when he was incapable of feeling any self-generated positive vibes. It’s like the natural rush while preparing to get high feels even better than being chemically high, is the thing. The television’s sounds were less muffled than distorted and somehow brown. He slipped a bag from its hide and placed it on the Bounty. Water lurked everywhere after he’d washed his hands and prepared to get therapeutically high, and he would not risk a droplet touching the glassine paper bag. Unseen water would soak into the paper. It sucked the powder into the glassine and wasted precious traces. After the water dried the substance was inextricable from the bag, just a tawny stain in that one hardened spot, and Larry would later wonder if it wasn’t at least part of God’s plan, a kind of symbolic physics; in less than a year the substance would be inextricable from Larry, and he would be stained, and vaporish inside.
He kept a brand new 1-liter Smart Water bottle on the toilet’s tank that he opened before uncapping the insulin needle and drawing .5 CCs from it. Opening the bag involved a series of gentle shakes, gathering the vaporously fine powder into the bag’s bottom then holding it, the lustrous white glassine, in diaphanous relief against the ceiling’s bulb checking for sticky crumbs clinging to the bag’s top half, then some more gentle finger flicks to coax the crumbs down before tearing it open as cautiously as a paycheck envelope, then squeezing the paper ever so gently until it V’d and the powder slides off the V’d lip into the aluminum spoon.
The television show playing brownly upstairs this one day he did too much dope and ruined his plans with Liz was a rerun, something Larry used to watch with his dad when he, Larry, was in high school. He recognized the actress’s cadence, he realized, a recurring line half-sung in a bit part introducing the host of “Tool Time,” a mock home improvement segment on the 1990’s ABC television series Home Improvement.
“Here’s your host, Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor.”
He can hear the muffled audience cheer, and the sound of a man’s voice, the actor Tim Allen it must be, speaking. Larry tries to imagine what Tim, Allen’s character, is saying and cannot. He tries to remember the plot from a Home Improvement episode, a family favorite show watched weekly and then daily after syndication, and which show’s gags and one-liners circulated through his own family life and were repeated by his father in jest. Larry couldn’t remember a single line from a single episode, aside from “Here’s your host, Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor,” and also the way Tim would grunt.
Larry is filled with sentiment and regret for things he cannot name. He feels very safe and warm in the refinished basement apartment, in the bathroom he’d demoed, reframed and sheetrocked, spackled, sanded and painted. He’d picked the fixtures and installed them himself one summer not long ago. The sink hardware did not match the shower hardware, the cabinet knobs did not match the doorknob, and the medicine cabinet’s wood veneer did not match the sink cabinets true wood even a little bit. The bathroom floor tiles were the original tiles from the original basement finishing when his uncle had first transformed this basement into a short term-use apartment. Then Larry’s father and pregnant mother moved into the original finished basement before buying the house from his Grandmother, Larry’s father’s mother, and moving her down here where she would collapse from a heart attack and die.
This is not an emotionless memory. Larry adored his Dad’s mother. They spent weekend days building toys together in the original finished basement, like tanks from wood blocks they painted camouflage, or a rubber band gun. Some nights Larry sneaked past his parents, ensconced on the couch after his bedtime and belly slid down the carpeted stairs to watch Mets baseball games. She made his breakfast before school, oatmeal, which Larry called oak-a-milk and was allowed to pour as much granulated sugar into as he wanted, something his mother would be furious about if she knew because it was really an unhealthy amount. Larry beckons a vivid image from a dream he’d had a year after his grandmother died. He was 9-years-old. In the dream, he was here in the old finished bathroom, sitting on the toilet, shitting in his dream, and the bathroom door was open. He could see through the doorway across the original finished living room to an ornately gold-framed mirror hung on the faux wood paneling. The dream has an ochre cast. Torch lit. Larry feels dread and impatience, remembering the dreamt commotion in the mirror as if an old still pond was stirred up, silty tendrils whorled. The mirror’s reflection is black and white. In it, the image of an angel mounted on a cloud develops in the murk. The angel’s vestments flow weightlessly, wings aflutter, her hair moving in some spectral breeze. A young beauty. Like a painting from mid-evil times or whatever, or like an old glamorous movie. She decocts out of the mirror and floats towards Larry sitting on the toilet gaping wide-eyed through the doorway. Larry is horrified and fascinated. “Go back,” he yells in his dream. “Go away!” The angel lays a hand over her heart. Her other arm extends pale and languid as milk in zero gravity. “I will always love you,” she says before she’s sucked back into the mirror. The image blips out like on old box-set TV. Larry could weep just thinking about it now. How he begged forgiveness when he realized the apparition was his dear grandmother visiting him as he slept.
One corner of the Bounty sheet rolls up when Larry takes the Bic lighter and holds its flame under his aluminum measuring spoon. The spoon’s level with his chin. Larry swirls the mixture gently. The sides sizzle first, then big bubbles glug up from the spoon’s center. The bathroom fills with the familiar scent of toasted sesame seeds, or like Boar’s Head Ovengold® Roasted Turkey Breast. Before he started shooting this stuff he used to snort it, and he smelled it everywhere he went. And now, he’s never sure if he smells heroin or a turkey sandwich when he’s struck by a certain odor someplace. There is soot embedded in surface scratches all over his white composite sink. Larry’s learned to rest the spoon carefully on the torn off glassine’s top half. Steam curls off the liquid’s tawny surface. He sanitizes his fingertips with alcohol, relishing the fumes, then pulls cotton off the Q-tip swab, rolls it into a ball and drops it into the solution. He presses the insulin needle’s bevel flat against the soaked cotton filter, careful that the tip doesn’t scrape the aluminum spoon and blunt. Then he draws in the solution. The television audience’s muffled laughter comes about every seven seconds, followed by a man’s voice then either a woman’s or child’s voice, Larry isn’t sure. His focus is all on the median cubital vein swelling at his elbow’s hinge. He’s thin and athletic. He has no use for a rubber tie-off or a belt or anything like that. He flexes his bicep and squeezes his fist. Blood flashes into the syringe like a red feather then freezes there. He’s never gotten high with a dope hangover. This is new therapeutic territory. The empty spoon lays on the sink’s left side amid the sooty scrimshaw. The needle is in there, inside his vein. He feels adrenaline and natural dopamine kick as his gears start to turn, and he has an intuition that addiction is a psychological autoimmunity. He feels very good about this thought, it seems to him like an original idea, and he relishes the natural occurring vibes. Liz will be here soon. The glassine bag is empty. He’s shooting the whole dose. He will tell Liz he’s sick and wants to go home to her Brooklyn apartment. He presses down on the plunger, and the warmth cascades over his neck and shoulders, and his heart pounds but slowly. It occurs to Larry that he’s playing a bit part on a show within a show.
He’d tried to journey inward, corny as it sounds, he told Liz on their second date night lying face to face in her bed. Her eyes flicked from one of his eyes to the other. Larry focused through Liz’s eyes to the wall behind her. The whole point to his remedial drug use served this inward purpose, he said, and he’d had a million breakthroughs and epiphanies on dope, and he was now clear as a bell, in psychological and emotional terms. But man did he have problems back in the day, he said. He’d read self-help books by shamans, by gurus, by Deepak Chopra, Paulo Coelho and James Redfield searching for answers that lay outside psychology’s purview. He’d listened to chants and mood music and smoked weed by the ounce. He’d tried hunting, which protoplasmic level instincts led him to shoot a bird one day in his parent’s backyard, then gut the bird and paint his face with its blood and pray over its opened body.
“I shot her with a bb gun,” Larry tells Liz. “Shot her off a branch in my parent’s backyard. I think I hit her in the belly, and she dropped from the branch flapping. I knew it was a mistake right away. I found her trying to stand in a pile of fallen longleaf needles. She couldn’t balance so she just laid there pushing the needles around with her wings. She was breathing heavy, or maybe trying to chirp.”
“She was alive still,” Liz says with a horror movie-level gasp, wide eyes flicking.
“Yes,” says Larry, the startled memory scrambled from the neurological bushes. “She was black with a yellow beak,” he says he remembers. “Her eyes were like drops of motor oil if motor oil were scared. She watched me from the side of her head, you know how bird eyes are on the sides.”
“Oh my god!” Her eyebrows make complex movements, and Larry isn’t sure if she’s mad at him or sorry for the bird. “Killing animals does the total opposite for your psychology than what you think. Psychopaths kill animals when they’re children. Did you know that?”
“I know, Liz. I didn’t torture the bird. I didn’t want to hurt her. It wasn’t about relishing her suffering,” he says.
“I’m the total opposite. I found a chick once that fell out of its poor nest. I took it home and lined a shoe box with tissues and leaves. I put maple leaves in there because that’s the kind of tree I found it at the bottom of, covered in fur yet, featherless and scared, and I wanted to remind it about home. And I put some crumbled-up sassafras leaves in there because they smell so good—like lemons. It died anyway. But at least it got to live a few more days and feel loved.”
“I didn’t see any blood is why I think I hit her in the belly, somewhere soft that caught the bb’s impact and like diffracted it or whatever. I had to finish her.”
“Finish her? I can’t listen. No, no, no. Sad.”
“No, but I had to, Liz.” Larry feels emotions rushing into his guts and he briefly wonders why the heart is always blamed for torment.
“Just to make yourself feel better.” Her eyes look down and stayed there.
He tries to remember the second bb’s impact. He lined up the barrel under and behind her right-side eye to kill her with a head shot. His Daisy single pump bb gun was not powerful, even for a bb gun, and he knew it. Pegging Pepsi cans in backyard shooting practice he could trace the shiny bb’s arch as it flew weakly toward the target. Sometimes a bb bounced off the tin can’s side. He either looked away or shut his eyes when he lined the barrel against the black bird’s head. He remembers feeling grateful that she couldn’t cry and her face showed no emotion. Her glossy eye peered blankly from her head’s right side and stabbed him with naked emotion. Larry feels little panicky waves slosh around in his stomach as he remembers what happened and tells Liz. He wanted to help her, the bird. But he couldn’t. She was injured and going to die. She was scared and either breathing heavy or trying to chirp, and he could not comfort her. He could either kill her or let her die slowly. He was so emotionally wounded that it physically paralyzed him. They were trapped together in that frozen moment, and Larry says his heart was beating as fast as the bird’s. The regret he feels now is as fresh as it was beneath those pine branches. She sat there in the longleaf needles hoping a bird’s protoplasmic hope. He definitely closed his eyes when he pulled the trigger, he remembers. The second shot did not finish her either, and Larry remembers her wings flail and her legs kick. He panicked over the flailing and he reloaded and single pumped to shoot again, this time watching intensely, aiming at a moving target’s head. He does not describe the third and fourth shots to Liz, which memory now causes him severe gastrointestinal emotion. He skips ahead, says, “I took her up to this shed we had in the backyard and climbed up to the roof. There was a wagon wheel up there on the shingled roof and I sat on it and laid her on a slab of oak two-by-six.” He doesn’t tell about petting the bird, nor describe the pocket knife’s dull blade, which was a whole other horror show at work.
His problems were not psychological is the point he tried to impress on Liz. His problems were spiritual, he says, pointing to his stomach. Liz says it makes no difference to the bird. But what he means though, he says, is when he’d started sliding down addiction’s slippery slope that’s how he felt. He says it was a spiritual quest that dope had woken him to. There were parts of him deeper than his mind, or maybe wider is the word, and dope lead him right up to those parts’ edges.
“You need to get out of your head,” Liz said, rolling to her back and pulling the covers up to her chin. “I’m going to take you on a hike. You think the whole world is in your mind, but your mind is just a little tiny part of the world.”
“I know that Liz. I’m clear on the matter.”
“The difference between psychological and spiritual problems is what exactly? At least psychology has a brain at its roots, and like it comes from something real. I mean a spiritual problem? Is that a thing? Maybe you just like drugs.”
“No argument there. I like dope a lot. A whole lot, just like you’d like ice a whole lot if you burnt your finger.”
“You go out in the woods and you see that you’re a small part of everything. Like you’re not even separate from the trees. You see the wind shaking leaves in one spot and you think it’s a separate wind, but it’s the same air you’re breathing connected to that wind, it only seems separate. It’s hard to explain. Like two different waves are still the same ocean. They only look separate.”
“The word uni-verse is a combination of two words that means one song,” Larry says, and Liz practically steals his covers rolling her eyes so hard. “What?”
“You keep making everything big when it’s all so small.”
“But it’s not, Liz. Lookit what you said. I’m a tiny part of the world.”
“No, you are the world. You’re like a chip off an ice block. You’re small, but still just as icy as the big piece. You are the whole thing, and it’s so small. God, I can’t even talk to you, it gets confusing.”
The videoless music playing from Liz’s wall mounted TV is alternative rock, a song Larry knows and had liked at one point in his life, but his life changed and he no longer likes the song. He wondered if the emotions he feels listening to the song, emotions stirred by the music, match the emotions Liz feels listening to the song. Like does this particular song have some intrinsic emotional color? This was the kind of idea he spent long periods of narcotized time dissecting and wondering how they applied to his life, the kind of thought he was sure other people worked out instantly, and he’s afraid the hard work he undertakes these deliberations with means he is, in a certain way, dumb. He’s sure music’s color is felt with something rooted in physicality but is not itself physical. Spirituality should have as many branches and specialized methods as psychology, he thinks.
Liz rolls onto her shoulder facing him. She holds the sheet over her breasts, which means something but Larry doesn’t know what and he feels, in a certain way, dumb. “Like one time on this hike with my dad, we stopped to lay down for a rest. We just looked up into the tree branches. The way they weaved a canopy over us with sunlight freckling through. We laid on our backs on the ground in this one grassy spot. And I started to think about the roots growing in the earth, branching out under me. The trees started looking like a bassinet and I was a baby they cradled. I just laid there, breathing the same air that moved the treetops. And like after a few minutes I started feeling cold tingles on my back because water was seeping through my shirt. It hadn’t rained or anything, the ground wasn’t wet. But the soil’s moisture crept in. The earth was trying to feed me and nurture me like I was one of the trees.”
“Capillary action,” Larry says.
“So generous and loving. There was no difference between me and the trees. You know what I’m saying? I cried. I was so happy fitting into the world like a root. That’s how I want to die; laying under the trees. And I want to be left there to sink back into the earth to feed them.”
There’s just no way the music playing feels the same to them, he thinks. And why does a conscious living experience always come with the awareness of death? The answer’s so obvious the question shouldn’t be asked, should never have been given psychic light and reflection, he thinks. And so okay he has to admit to himself that maybe doing drugs, especially heroin—which just the spoken name derives intense interest he’s noticed—maybe he’s funneling drugs’ appeal for his own vain introspection. Maybe his inward spiritual journey deserves no one’s conscious time, and the light shining on his inner struggle is only reflected from heroin’s high-intensity light. Heroin is the really interesting context his goofy spirituality came alive in conversationally he realizes, which makes him feel, in a certain way, dumb.