r.kv.r.y. quarterly winter 2008
shorts on substances
Max is Dead
by Benjamin Arda Doty
When the three of us spent another night on the beach, Max fell into convulsions
and died. Des said if we’d let him be, he’d come out of it. But then his body stopped
moving, his breathing quit.
I can’t believe it: Max is dead, buried six feet underground in the hills of Colma in a
place that advertises itself as an eternal home. What a strange place to call home.
We were all looking for it, I guess, but Max found it. The doctors called it respiratory
and circulatory collapse; his body boiled over and gave out, like an overheated car
engine. Max is why I’m in rehab. Three weeks now, a miracle; they kicked out my
roommate Suz for falling back into the habit.
I struggle. I wake up every morning a snail sliding on the edge of a razor blade. I
hear the screams of little children. They’re digging their finger nails into my skin. Des
said the screaming children means I never want to have kids, never want to get
pregnant and have them inside of me. Maybe. Maybe not. They were there and wouldn’
t go away. The shrink calls it psychosis. And when Des tried to touch me as they dug
their fingernails into my skin, I slapped her hand away. Even Des who touched me
more than I ever let anyone else touch me, Des, who, blaming herself for not getting
help soon enough, decided to go back East after Max died.
Jeff is new. In a narrow empty hallway that leads to a janitor’s closet, he tugs on my
arm, and I follow him. The magic man has arrived, and I have to choose. Do I fall back
in again? Do I fall back in love with the one thing you’d steal for, lie for, and even, like
Max, die for?
Meth is a demanding lover, not like Des, beautiful black Desirae.
Shiny broken white rocks, fragments of glass, jewels really, without color or smell, so
pretty and light in the hands. Smoke it like cocaine, and it will make love to you for
half a day. I wasn’t fat anymore on the mile-high train that went around and around.
And you could add other substances to your recreational drug use. But it is a take-no-
prisoners lover; the break up is hard. It kills you, and you want to go back to it. They
say our odds of surviving cancer are better than breaking a meth addiction. And they
tell us this to encourage us. Unbelievable. It will love you forever.
“Look at what I got,” says Jeff, waving a little bag of beautiful jewels, in his other
hand a glass pipe.
Nothing took Des by surprise until Max died. Before that when something bad
happened, when my grandmother kicked me out of the house or I had to spend several
days in jail for signing other people’s checks until they saw me and dropped the
charges, Des fought for me, took me into her dying mother’s apartment in Bayview and
made strawberry cheesecake, my favorite. And when my skin touched her skin, it was
like honey on chocolate sweet. Then her mother died. Then we slept under the stars,
Max died, and she went to live with her father in Mississippi.
“I know of an alley a couple of blocks with a dumpster,” he says, “all empty.”
They let us out in the afternoons and evenings and test us in the mornings. We’re
here by choice, and they can’t lock us down. But if we slip up, it’s good-bye.
The screams are always there, even if they’re far away. One person here thinks the
army is after him. Yet another thinks her food is poisoned. Most, the lucky, don’t see,
hear, smell, feel or think anything at all. I write so I can make the world that seems so
big small, so that it fits within a space of a normal sheet of paper. But I don’t scream;
the children do. I can tear up a sheet of paper and start over, or not start over. Meth
will shout out the screams, but they will be there when the high’s over.
I can’t believe it: Max is dead and Des has left me.
When we are free to leave, I follow Jeff the few blocks to the sanctuary he
describes. The city’s fog is over us like a cloak. There’s a crooked smile on his face. He’
s giddy, excited by what waits. Behind him, I’m anxious.
In a better time, I was in high school living with my father’s mother. He and Becky,
his girlfriend, who could be a bitch but never asked me to call her mom, lived there as
well. Of my parents, I took after my mother most, her darker skin and eyes, her
seriousness and sadness, all from a country named like the ugly bird at Thanksgiving.
Of course, this is only what they say; she died when I was young. Maybe Des came to
me because my mother had died and hers was dying. I wasn’t the wayward girl yet,
but I was getting there.
Jeff puts the white crystals in my hand, and they shine, even in the light muted grey
by the fog. His eyes, while deep inside the sockets of his head, skin and a pate of hair
barely hanging on a skull, are active and flit back and forth. There is a tiny glimmer in
them, like the white of the crystals, a fire almost out but ready to blaze again, like
Max’s eyes but blue instead of brown. I hand him back the crystals, which he drops
down into the pipe bowl. A choice, but meth is a demanding lover. Remember Max, I
say to myself.
When Des and I began sleeping under the stars, Max, a part-time magic man
perfecting his tricks, joined us so we became a homeless trio in the city called a
modern-day Camelot. Some nights, when we smelled too much like the homeless, we
stayed in a hotel to take showers, as Max worked like a mad scientist bringing
together household products to conjure up his own jewels; some he would sell, some
he would keep for us. His friends and clients called him tweaky bird, on account of his
small, thin frame and constant state of making love to his creations. He said that he’d
only cook up love from now on because he had watched his parents, helping them
when he was old enough, working twelve-hour days picking crops near Fresno. It was
only when he died and had his funeral that we learned his real name was Francisco.
And when he died, lying there in his coffin, he had a calm face, like he had found home.
Jeff brings the lighter to the pipe. He closes his eyes and inhales, reconnecting with
that old flame of ours. When he’s finished, he hands it to me, and I must choose as
the thought of love momentarily silences the chorus of screams in the back of my
head, voices I know I can quiet forever.
Three weeks, really, is a miracle.
artwork by tamar factor