Junkette [An Excerpt]
Junkette is the story of Claire Cunningham, a woman navigating disasters—natural and of her own making. Claire is a bartender in pre-Katrina New Orleans, a college graduate whose heroin addiction parallels the swirling fortunes of her sinking city. She knows she needs to get clean, but despite being smart enough to see all the angles, she can’t quite find a way out.
-Nyquil, soup and Gatorade
-Ice cream with a Vicodin mix-in
-A tiny bit of methadone and constant masturbation
-The best pot you can find and a bottle of whiskey
-A big fucking lock or a shotgun
-Jennifer told me reading helps
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday are the slow days at the bar, so I tell Hassan I have to go to Texas because my sister is sick, take me off the schedule for three days. This is for real. I mean it. I’m sticking it out. I’m moving through it. I’m resolved and ready and this is really going to be for real.
From my list of kick strategies, I choose reading—The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And whiskey—Evan Williams.
It’s not surprising that Jennifer told me reading helps. Last week, she laid on my mattress, having a bad day, one of those days you think a kick might actually be better than doing the same fucking thing one more time, and she told me again about her novel.
I could see the wrinkles that are usually invisible, or at least covered up with her thick tipped kohl and falsies. The way Jennifer wears falsies, they don’t look like Tammy Faye Baker, they look devastating, like she was born in go-go boots and blue eye shadow and a hint of glitter threaded through those thick blonde streaks. But with her eyes squinted, and the make-up falling off her face, she looked almost old. People regularly take Jennifer for younger than I am, she’s carded down in the Quarter. She says it’s the drugs. They’ve pickled her.
There are craters in my brain, big open gashes howling feed me feed me feed me like there’s some kind of small animal that swam up my belly and into my head. Like it doesn’t know words, just full and empty and it won’t stop scritching. I thought I’d killed that thing.
Opioid receptors are permanent. Chip has explained it all, he is an expert. Everyone has them, but most people never use them. Most people keep those receptor doors locked, but we flung them open. We have wide drafty gaps. And right now, the wind is blowing in sharp sub-zero, coming over me in waves. I’m shivering even though I’m under the blankets. The cheap leopard print covers crawl on my skin, I can’t touch anything, least of all myself. To masturbate through this is insane. I can’t touch my hair to put it in a ponytail, much less rub circles on my clit.
I try to make lists in my head, even if I can’t bring myself to find my notebook. Anything to keep my mind off Chip bundling envelopes. I try to name fruits, and the only thing I can think of is cantaloupe. Cowardly, cowardly cantaloupe.
I go back and forth, covered in the crawling blankets, wishing my skin itched from the dope instead of the scratchy fabric, then I’m freezing, burning again, pushing the blankets to the floor, sweating, I’m burning, burning off the bone. My knees are sweating. And then back to freezing, lowering my arm for the blanket, like I’ve been pumped full of cemented jerky, like I’m Warring in the hospital.
But I have a book. And I’m reading, trying to read, looking through the pages.
The back and forth subsides and I can smoke a little Afghani and drink a little sip of Evan Williams and hope the wave will last. I feel like I could sit up and make a phone call or walk to the bathroom or turn the page in the book, that’s when my mind starts in, and what passes for logic starts churning. Chip’s right there. No point in going cold turkey, no one’s done that since the 70s. You’ve already started to wean. Then the rehab stuff starts to morph. We didn’t become addicted in one day, so easy does it. That’s right. Easy does it, I shouldn’t try to get clean in one day. How about one bag a day. One bag a day is affordable. One bag a day is totally acceptable. Totally workable. Totally totally what I should do. That’s what I’ll do. One bag a day. Then half a bag a day. Then a shot a day. Then I’ll move to Nicaragua and teach English and smoke hash on the beach. That’s what will happen. One bag a day. It’s almost like one day at a time. That’s the most reassuring part of the whole bullshit. Seems like the way I already operate—the way we all operate. I’m practically in recovery already. One bag at a time.
Scritch. Scritch. Scritch-scritch. I’m still in this fucking bed in this fucking house where I will never ever be able to leave. But I love it here. I’m lucky to be here. I mean it.
“Don’t you look like you’ve looked hotter,” Jennifer says as she sits on the edge of the bed, blanket splayed half on, my leg crooked in between. “Smells like a kick in here.” She is referring to the stench of my sweat and the vomit I have left in the toilet and the poison that is draining from my pores—it smells like sewage. I didn’t vomit from the lack of dope; I vomited from the smell of myself.
-Not eating beef
-National Honor Society
Jennifer asks if I want a backrub. Her touching my skin, the thought of my own skin touching my own bone, is disgusting. Jennifer asks if I want a shot and I cry. All the fluids sucked dry to the dope start to pour. The only thing I have felt more than sick or well for months are the occasional rushes of perfection when the cut is just right and I have waited just long enough—not so long that I am sick, but not so quick the dope is redundant. And now, with this pickled woman perched on the edge of my bed, I cannot control the flooding.
“I just want to go to the mountains,” I say over and over again. “I just want to get the fuck out of this place.”
Jennifer crawls over me, becomes part of the leopard, she lifts my head and lowers it to her lap, lets me sob into the space between her thighs. Jennifer gathers my sticky hair, matted at the scalp, tangled and pressed together, I have not brushed in weeks. She twists the long strands of my honeypoppy hair into a thick knot and presses circles into my temples, like it’s my clit. I can breathe again.
“You want a get down, baby,” she says like it’s a bite of ice cream for a sick child, like it’s a bottle for a baby, she says it and it’s the only thing in the whole world I want more than her holding me. It’s all I need in the world to happen.
I say, “I’m kicking. I’m going to Colorado, I need my ticket. Where’s my ticket?” I wonder if this would be easier on a bus, where I couldn’t cry and I couldn’t lay down and I couldn’t get my temples rubbed by a pretty pickled lady.
I have run out of lines and holes. My arms are bloated and fresh open with bright red and deep purple and my legs are delicate yellow green, the color of hay in the sunlight. It hurts to wear pants. And it hurts to wear shirts. And my nose is out of the question and has been for a year. I’ve become a disgusting mouth-breather.
“I’ll help you,” she says, and yes, yes, I think, that’s what I need, I need some help.
“You want a get down, baby,” she repeats, and I know yes. If she can help me find a place, surely she can also help me get dressed. There’s a lot to be said for this effort I’ve made. My tolerance is down already. Easy does it.
Jennifer goes to Chip’s room and returns with a piece, cooks it for me on the floor.
“Where’s your outfit?”
I can’t muster words, just point to the top dresser drawer.
“The one with the ribbon?” she asks.
I always tie my favorite piece of ribbon to the outfit that’s the sharpest and least bent. Even if all outfits do look the same, I make sure mine are identified with ribbon, girl.
Things I will never quit:
She pulls my tank top off slowly, like she’ll kiss my nipples next, and cups my left breast in her long fingers. Her chipped peach fingernails brush over my veins, I have never noticed the road from nipple to heart.
“You’ll feel better in one minute, this is a secret, baby, this is a girl secret, clutch, I’m gonna teach you this, right like this.”
I love her. She pinches my nipple with her fingernails and it feels perfect, like it was born inside her hand and like magic a thin blue road pops. She presses the tip in toward my heart, so shallow I can feel the metal on the down side of my skin, quick pulls up the register and there it is red and gone in less than a second.
A button the size of a tiny pill raises at the outside of my areola, swells then drains and shrinks, passing the dope onward. My head is still between her legs and I can smell her, she smells like dope and chamomile, pussy and cigarettes and lilac and I love her, I love her for this. I press my face into the place between her thighs and breathe her in and she strokes my hair and says, “That’s my girl, feel better now, don’t worry, you’ll do this, we’re all gonna do it.”
I’m for real, I’m going to do it, it’s almost like I already have.
I sink in real good, there’s that spot in the wild feeling, I’m inside it. Her pussy is light and a dot is dark but I’m both and I get to float and sink and I know right here is the place I was meant to love someone, Jennifer loves me. It’s just like those petals.
I feel the dope moving through my body, down to my toes, not quite, but soon, two directions at once which is new. Usually dope travels in one direction, towards your heart, and then, slower, radiates out, you are the sun. Sometimes it moves so slowly you can barely register it, but this is happening in two directions at once and I can’t move, I just stay right where I am.
I look at Jennifer and see how she has done this so long and so well, how she gets people to love her. I love her because she loves me like this. I need a novel like hers. A novel like that would sustain me. A novel like hers would be a love story just like this.
Sarah Shotland is a playwright and novelist. Her work has been produced in New Orleans, Chicago, Dallas, Austin, and internationally in Chongqing, PRC. She is the co-founder or Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails and rehab centers in Pittsburgh. She teaches in the MFA program at Chatham University.
Junkette (White Gorilla Press, 2014) is now available for purchase on Amazon.