I put the car in park and peered around at my surroundings. I’d driven to a brick and wood panel house, one of those houses that was obviously designed and built in the 70s. It lay under an ancient oak tree, it’s long and twisted branches reaching out over the house and front yard with their shadows giving a false sense of comfort in the midday heat. One fallen branch would easily destroy the house. A rough looking dog house was nestled at the base of the tree housing an equally rough looking mangy Siberian husky.
The husky was not the only animal I saw. In fact, the yard was infested with pets and strays alike. The house sat down the road from a low income trailer park, where parents would gift puppies to their children, not understanding how much dedication and money raising a dog truly takes. Some of these neglected and forgotten pets inevitably migrated to this house, where the owner set out food every day for all of the unwanted dogs as well as her pets.
I turned off the ignition and opened my door, stepping out into the sweltering Mississippi summer heat. The smell of dog feces immediately met my nostrils. I stared at my feet as I cautiously made my way to the front door, stepping carefully to avoid the numerous mounds of shit. The smell of extreme neglect joined the smell of feces once I reached the front door. A pungent potpourri of waste and decay.
Knock knock, shuffling inside, then an open door. The smell of urine joining the fecal rot. Standing before me was a nice enough older lady. She was extremely sweet, to the point it sometimes felt disingenuous. She wore a purple sweatsuit despite the heat, stained with sweat and food and dirt (I hoped it was dirt, at least.). Slightly overweight, her jowls had a habit of jiggling violently when she spoke. I always found myself focusing on it while listening to her speak and there was no change to this routine as she said “hello.”
“Hey Miss Paula, how are you doing? Hiding from this heat?” I asked.
“Oh ya know, I’m just makin’ it. Scrappy, hush!” A small dog was yapping at me from between her feet. I never found out the breed, probably a mutt, but it was a dog I classified as an “ankle biter.” The words of Ron Swanson snuck into my thoughts...”any dog under 50 pounds is a cat and cats are pointless.” My mind had a habit of drifting to some pop culture reference that few people ever got when I’d speak them aloud. “Why don’t ya come on inside with the AC. You look like you’re burnin’ up.” Her southern accent was as thick as the humidity.
She stepped to the side and held open the door as I passed the threshold. The aroma outside was undeniably bad but it simply did not compare to the wall of stink that crashed into my face as I entered. The house was a mess in every sense of the word. Hell, “mess” was an extreme understatement. The living room furniture, if the room even actually contained any furniture, was piled with laundry and trash to the point of invisibility. I could see in some spots that the floor was originally white, but most of it now was piss yellow. More dogs began barking at me as Scrappy nipped at my heels. The inside of the house told a tale of a lonely woman, one whose children no longer came around and a husband long gone. A tale of a woman who cared more for the stray dogs she took care of more than she cared for herself. A tale of a woman that hoarded useless things to try and fill a hole left in her life after raising her family. Not caring about ourselves was one of the few things Miss Paula and I had in common. “Sorry about the mess, she apologized.”
“Oh it’s fine, I hardly noticed,” I lied as I searched for a decent place to lean my aching body against.
“So...how’s your momma?” The beginning of a barrage of questions I couldn’t care less to answer. A pointless formality to maintain the facade of southern hospitality. I answered each one respectfully, patiently waiting for us to arrive to the point of my visit. “...and those damned doctors have found more junk supposedly wrong with me. Sometimes I feel like they’re just yankin’ my chain for insurance money, I swear.” Miss Paula was riddled with medical issues. Thinking about how little time she had remaining would give me an existential crisis.
“Yeah I can’t imagine what you’re going through. It’s obviously tough,” I replied, wondering if she ever noticed how captivated I was by her chubby, rippling cheeks. Maybe I focused on them so as not to become overwhelmed by the putrid stink of this house and thoughts of death.
“Yeah it’s tough, but The Lord will guide me through it. I have no doubt about that.” I couldn’t help but wonder why a loving god would put his creation through such pain. “Anyway, how many did you say you wanted again?”
Finally, to the fucking point. “Well, I have like $120 so I guess 12? If you can spare them.” Pointless politeness. Of course this unemployable lady living in squalor would sell me her morphine pills. My habit bought her groceries every week.
“The doctor gave me some new ones this last time. These are 60 milligrams instead of 30. I don’t know how much these usually go for...”
“Well I guess it makes sense to double the price for double the milligram, you think?” I asked. The price was fair. (Some of you will doubt this, but heroin was non existent in my area so pain pills were relatively cheap. No ‘dollar a mg’ bullshit, here) I was a junkie with a serious habit, but I couldn’t bring myself to be dishonest to this poor lady. The least I could do was pay her right.
“You sure that ain’t too much? That’s an awful lot...are these really worth $20? I don’t think I’d pay that but I sure am thankful you know people that do.” She punctuated her statement with a hearty laugh. “So it’ll be 6 then, right?”
“Yup, 6.” I replied anxiously. I was giddy with the anticipation of getting back to my car with the pills. I was on the third day of withdrawal and had been waiting on “refill day” all week. Miss Paula poured 8 little white ovals into my outstretched palm.
“Here’s two extra for you sellin’ ‘em for me. I know you wouldn’t tell me but I bet it’s a lotta trouble findin’ people to pay $10 or $20 a pill.” Miss Paula believed that I was an innocent college kid just helping a poor old lady make some money. She had no idea I’d be cooking two of these pills in her driveway five minutes from now, shielded from her view by a large holly bush.
“Thank you, it’s not a big deal. They’re easy to sell, especially at school, ya know. Those kids would rather buy drugs than food.” I joked, Miss Paula unaware of that jab I was making at myself. I’d chose to buy her groceries instead of my own.
“Well, I sure do appreciate it. You be safe now, ya hear? You want a coke or somethin’?” I said sure and she moseyed over to her filthy fridge, stepping barefoot into puddles of lukewarm dog piss. She came back with a Dr. Pepper... Southerners called any soda “coke.” I thanked her and walked outside, trying not to sprint to my car door and thankful for the shit-smelling air in comparison to the pungent mess that was the inside of Paula’s house.
I sat in my driver’s seat, shut the door, and reversed down the driveway past the holly bush near the old country road, stopping once I was sure the nose of my car wasn’t visible from Miss Paula’s front door. I was acutely feeling every symptom of my withdrawals... it always seems to get worse when you know you’re just a few steps from getting better. My AC was off despite the sweltering heat, amplified by my closed car windows. An ant trapped under the magnified beam of sunlight aimed by an uncaring bully of a god. I opened my center console, gathered my supplies, and began to work.
First, you had to wipe the coating off the pills. Sometimes I would skip this step out of impatience, but that day I methodically smeared every bit of white off both of the pills I selected. With both pills free of their coating, I dropped them in my spoon. The amount of water one needs to successfully make a solution of morphine from a pill depends on a few things... the brand of the pill (different brands require different steps to break down), the depth of the spoon (a deep spoon wouldn’t evaporate water as quickly as a shallow one), the strength of your source of heat (the weak flame of a Bic, the red hot heat of an oven eye). I had a fairly deep spoon that I’d shoplifted (how pathetic is it to shoplift a .99 cent spoon?) and one of those small torches sold at convenience stores, so I didn’t require much water. Torches have the added benefit of not leaving behind any smut. A “good rule of thumb” (a phrase with extremely fucked origins, by the way) I used was “one syringe cap (the cap protecting the plunger on diabetic needles) per pill.” I dumped the water in the spoon and put the torch to its bottom.
Breaking down pills isn’t like fixing a shot of heroin. It takes a bit of time. I sat there for about a minute, waiting for the water to boil and trying to ignore the school bus coming up the street. The pills swelled and I smashed them into the water as the bus dropped my niece off a few houses down, oblivious to her uncle preparing a shot within eyesight. With each smash, a white cloud spread out from the round edge of the plunger until nothing was left of the pills but two oval husks with a faint “60” imprint. I dropped a piece of balled up cotton into the water and drew up exactly 100 units of solution. I’d done this so often that I filled the syringe completely the first try, using just the right amount of water. My deviant chemistry lab experiment was complete. If only I did that well in my actual chemistry class. Oh well, time to get well.
I was drenched in sweat and my veins were popping. I didn’t even need to tie off. The needle tore a hole through the top of my hand and I began to dig under my flesh in search of a vein. After a few seconds, I felt the familiar “pop” as the vein gave up its flight from the needle, bouncing back into place as I pushed the needle deeper into the vein, insuring it didn’t pop back out. I pulled the plunger back, mesmerized by the majestic swirl of blood shooting into the morphine solution...I always appreciated that part of the ritual the most. I pushed the plunger all the way in until it expelled a sucking sound as the last bit of solution entered my circulatory system. I pulled the needle out, placed a thumb on the wound to mitigate bruising, sat back, and waited.
Morphine sneaks up on you just like heroin (I feel like I need to explain because I know most people here shoot heroin). In my experience, just as I become disappointed in how “good” my shot was, it creeps up on me. That day was no different. Being 3 days into withdrawal, the shot showed me no mercy. It started with a sensation I can only describe as “needles in your teeth.” It was so strong that it felt like my head would shatter, each tooth exploding like a kernel of popcorn in response to the heat swelling in my chest. The familiar sinking feeling reached my legs and stomach, as if a force were pulling me by an invisible rope through the bottom of my car. It felt like I gained 200 pounds in seconds. The pins and needles spread to the rest of my body, pricking and prodding in an unexpectedly pleasant way. Twenty seconds in, the rush continued to become more intense. My head drooped as a black shadow formed around my vision. The thought of me overdosing crossed my mind, though I wasn’t sure if it was actually happening. I imagined my innocent niece seeing my car from her house, walking over excitedly and discovering her selfish uncle cold and blue and covered in vomit. Her innocence ruined, the image of my corpse forever seared into her memory. I fought the shadows back...huddles of demonic beings retreating from the light. I couldn’t let myself overdose there.
The rush finally let up. My heart was pounding into my skull, skin beat read and hot as if I had an extreme fever. I felt a mild headache forming in my temples. The lingering memory of the pins and needles creating an unbearable itch in my feet. Yet I was alive and I was well, the beast of opiate withdrawal temporarily placated yet again. I sat there for a moment, trying to erase the image of my imagined death and discovery. Eventually I started the ignition and drove to my sisters house.
My niece greeted me at the back door of my sister’s house. It opened into their kitchen and she was preparing an after school snack. A pang of guilt shot through my body.
“Hey, how was school? I was just driving by and figured I’d come say ‘hey’. Do you wanna go play Minecraft?” Like any elementary aged child at the time, she was absolutely obsessed with the game. She said yes and I followed her to the living room, waving to my sister as I walked. My niece sat cross legged in the floor and I joined her in front of the TV, picking up a controller.
“Hey Uncle, what’s that? Did you get hurt?” My niece asked as I crossed my legs. She was pointing to my hand.
I looked down and saw a streak of blood left over from my shot, another pang of guilt shooting throughout my body. “Oh, I don’t know what that is. I must have gotten bit by a mosquito.”
At least I wouldn’t have to live with such guilt if I had overdosed, I selfishly thought.