Duncan Hicks peered out the passenger window at the endless succession of chain restaurants, drug stores, and bank branches.
Subway. Walgreens. Citibank.
Subway. Walgreens. Citibank.
Subway. Walgreens. Citibank.
There was a certain poetry to it—a sad bit of poetry. Bleaker than anything in his memoir. While Seems Like Salvation was plenty dark, his downward spiral of drug abuse was nowhere near as soul-crushing as the repetitive neon blur passing by his window.
“You hungry? We can totally stop for a bite.”
Duncan answered without facing the driver. “I’m too tired to eat.”
“That’s cool,” the driver said. “How many more stops on this tour?”
“Four. No—five. Flying out west in the morning.”
Although Duncan had long since completed his court-mandated twelve-step program, he was now on steps thirteen and fourteen: publish and publicize. He marveled at his good luck. Publishers didn’t do squat for most authors, yet here he was in the midst of a national book tour. First-class seats. Five-star meals. Roadside motels. They had to cut corners somewhere. At least the cheap motels were a step up from the flophouses he used to frequent.
Duncan called his wife every night. Told her he loved her because it was true. Told his daughter he couldn’t wait to see her (also true). Occasionally, they all rendezvoused online. Seeing their faces gave him strength. He didn’t need Group. All he needed was family. Ten years earlier, as he’d laid in Cedars-Sinai recovering from his accident, his wife said the two words that finally scared him straight.
“Ever been to Powell’s before?”
Duncan glanced at the driver out of the corner of his eye. The boy didn’t appear old enough to have a driver’s license, let alone be in college and escorting authors to and from readings. Maybe he was a child prodigy. Did they give special driving permits to child prodigies?
“I lived in Seattle for a hot second,” Duncan said. “Don’t think I ever made it to Portland.”
“You’re reading at Powell’s, though? That’s what I saw online.”
“At one of their stores. Beaverton, I think.”
“If you get a chance, go to the big Powell’s—the one downtown. It’s so big, you can get lost in there. Like, I’ve heard of people literally going missing there. Swear to God.”
“You can get lost in any bookstore. All you need is the right book,” Duncan said. It sounded like the kind of thing an older, wiser author would say to a young, starstruck pupil.
The kid nodded. “Yeah, I guess you can, right? I—”
“Can we listen to the radio?”
“The radio? Oh, sure. Of course.”
The kid turned the radio up. Some Nirvana song, by the sound of the out-of-tune guitar.
“You like Nirvana?” the kid asked. “They’re my favorite classic rock band.”
Duncan grimaced. This kid hadn’t even been a tadpole in his dad’s sack when Kurt Cobain choked on the business end of his twelve-gauge. “I don’t really listen to them anymore.”
“You used to? You’d have to, if you lived in Seattle, I guess.”
The truth was they used to be one of Duncan’s favorite groups. Rehab changed that. Afterward, Duncan could fucking hear the junk in Kurt’s voice. Nirvana had been a staple of every mixtape he’d ever made, and then—BAM!—one day he couldn’t listen to them anymore. Just couldn’t do it.
“I don’t listen to much music these days,” Duncan lied.
The song ended, and the opening chords of Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” kicked in. “What is this, the grunge channel?”
“It’s Sirius XM Lithium,” the kid said. “All nineties, all the time.”
Who wanted to re-live the nineties all the time? How Duncan had ever finished writing his memoir, he couldn’t begin to fathom. It had taken him five years of steady work to complete the first draft, mainly because he couldn’t re-enter that world again for longer than twenty minutes at a time. He looked forward to working on his next book, a young adult novel about post-apocalyptic vampires. What excited him about it the most was that it was absent his two least favorite things: drugs, and Duncan Hicks. He’d sent some sample chapters to his agent, who sent an e-mail that just said, Let’s talk about this after your tour. Not the enthusiastic response he’d been hoping for, but he wouldn’t read too much into it until they could talk on the phone. If he could just explain his vision to her—the six-book cycle, complete with interactive webisodes—she would warm to it.
“Your book meant a lot to me,” the kid said.
“You use?” Duncan asked.
There were two kinds of people who showed up at a Duncan Hicks reading: ex-users and current users. He had no idea why anyone on drugs would want to wallow in his misery; he had no idea why anyone not on drugs would want to wallow in his misery. Seems Like Salvation was a joyless confession he should have saved for his priest.
But Duncan didn’t go to church. He spilled himself on the page, exposing himself to the public like a pervert on a city bus. Readers ate it up, wanted to know how he did it. You need momentum to escape your black hole, he preached to them. You have to go faster than the speed of junk.
He had no idea what the fuck that meant.
“Heroin? God, no,” the kid said. “I’m afraid of needles.”
“So what did my book mean to you?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You said my book meant a lot to you. If you’ve never shot junk, what did it mean to you?”
“Oh, well, just that, y’know, someone who was screwed up can be redeemed. That if you’re broken and don’t believe in some boogeyman upstairs, you can still find salvation.”
“It’s not easy, but you can do it.”
“When I sober up, I’d like to write a memoir,” the kid said.
“I smoke pot.”
“What do you write?”
“Nothing, but I think I have a great story in me.”
The best advice Duncan could give the kid was that life stories are like assholes: Everyone has one, but nobody in publishing wants to look at them. In fact, a photograph of your own asshole would probably be an easier sell than a memoir about smoking pot in college. But he didn’t say this. Instead, Duncan cranked Eddie Vedder up a few notches and stared back out the window.
Subway. Walgreens. Citibank.
Subway. Walgreens. Citibank.
Subway. Walgreens. Citibank.
The reading had been over in twenty minutes, but the signing line stretched for three hours. Duncan could still feel it in his wrist. On the ride back to the hotel, he fantasized about filling an ice bucket and burying his right hand in it to reduce the swelling. What he wouldn’t give for just one shot of smack to numb the pain…
Duncan crashed on the bed without phoning his wife or even stripping to his boxers. The ice bucket could wait. Unfortunately, despite being dead tired, he soon found himself tossing and turning. He didn’t have restless leg syndrome—he had restless mind syndrome. A chronic condition, especially for writers. The only cure he’d ever found to calm his racing thoughts was junk.
“Insomnia’s a bitch.”
Duncan snapped his eyes open and bolted upright. The room was dark, but enough streetlight filtered through the wafer-thin curtains that he could see he wasn’t alone. The hunched shape of a man occupied one of the worn chairs in the corner, about ten feet away. Duncan couldn’t tell if the man was armed.
“What do you want?” Duncan asked, his eyes darting to the nightstand. His phone wasn’t there. He ran a hand over the pockets of his khakis. Empty.
“We’re just here to talk,” the man said, his voice as thin and frail as his body appeared to be beneath the suit.
“Who’s ‘we’? Do I know you?”
“You know us.”
Duncan waited for an explanation. After a long pause, it became apparent one wouldn’t be forthcoming. “What do you want? Money? I don’t have any cash—”
“—but you have plenty of money, right? All sorts of money. That little book of yours is doing pretty well.”
“Are you kidnapping me?”
The man laughed. “You think someone would pay for your sorry ass?”
Well, yes. Of course. His wife would, no questions asked. Even his publisher had a vested interest in him now. Duncan Hicks was a valuable commodity.
“I know what’s going through your mind right now,” the man said. “You’re thinking about your family. You’re thinking they’d pay anything to have you back. Am I right?”
Duncan said nothing.
“Think about it. How much is a junkie’s life really worth?”
“I’m going to guess your wife watches your bank account like a hawk. You don’t have access to cash, beyond what you can withdraw with your debit card. Two hundred a day doesn’t go as far as it used to. If you started using again, it would be just like you to stage some phony kidnapping, wouldn’t it? All the cash you wanted, then.”
The man paused, either for dramatic effect or to catch his breath.
“Don’t worry,” he continued, “we’re not going to kidnap you. Money isn’t terribly important where I come from.”
“You here to hurt me, then?” Duncan asked, his fingers reflexively digging into his palms. “Can I say something?”
“Be my guest.”
“If this is over something I did when I was high, I’m a different person now.”
The old man laughed. “You think we’re here to hurt you? We’re not going to hurt you. You seem to do a good job of that all by yourself. When it comes to self-destruction, you’re the poster child. The addict du jour. Mr. Self-Destruct.”
Duncan said nothing.
The man flipped the desk lamp on, illuminating his weathered face. It was familiar, yet not. The gray suit and hat made him look like he’d just stepped out of a noir novel. Duncan’s eyes didn’t linger on the old man, for something else caught his eye. Something on the desk.
A small plastic bag and a Tom Moore cigar box. “What the hell is that?”
“Has it really been so long that you’ve forgotten?” the old man asked. “I thought you guys were close. What did you call junk in your book? ‘Your sweetest friend’?”
“I don’t know what you think is going to happen here, but I’m not touching that shit. I don’t need friends like that—or like you, frankly, whoever the fuck you are. I have a daughter now.”
The toilet flushed, and the bathroom door swung open. A baby-faced guy with shoulder-length blond hair sauntered out. He didn’t look to be much older than the kid who’d driven him to and from the reading. The way the green cardigan and ripped jeans hung on his body made Duncan think of a scarecrow.
“A daughter?” Blondie said. “I had a daughter too.”
The old man nodded. “We all have daughters, or sons. Or husbands, or wives. We all have somebody. You think junk cares about them? Junk don’t care.”
“I’m clean,” Duncan said. “I’ve been clean for ten years.”
“Besides that one relapse a year or so after rehab, but who’s counting?”
That one relapse…no one knew about that. Not even his wife.
“Oh, don’t give me that blank look,” the old man said. “I know where your book ends: with you stepping out of rehab, clean and sober. That’s the Hollywood ending…but that wasn’t your last dance with the devil.”
Duncan shook his head. “We all slip up from time to time. I’m not perfect. I never said I was.”
“So it’s not a lie, you’re saying? It’s a sin of omission? Either way, junk don’t care.”
“I have a career now. A house. I’m not going to throw everything away.”
“Junk don’t care.”
“Stop saying that.”
“Why? It’s true,” the old man said. “You know it. Junk don’t care.”
Blondie sat down cross-legged on the floor beside the old man.
“Who the hell are you guys anyway? If you wanted to talk to me about junk, you should have raised your hands during the Q&A session. Like normal fans.”
“We’re not fans. We’re colleagues,” Blondie said, lighting a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in here,” Duncan said.
“You’re not supposedto smoke in here,” Blondie said, exhaling a smoke ring. “But you can smoke in here.”
“There’s a fine if they catch you. Like five hundred dollars a night.”
Blondie laughed. “Are you paying for the room?”
“My publisher is.”
“That’s what I thought. You want one?”
Duncan sighed. He had started smoking during rehab. Nothing serious. Just a little crutch that he returned to now and again. It was his little secret, something he did behind his wife’s back. Maybe she knew about it. She had to. Blondie crossed the room and shook a smoke out of the pack of American Spirits without waiting for an answer. Duncan thought about grabbing the guy’s wrist, twisting his arm behind his back, and taking him hostage long enough to get out of the room. Too bad that the urge to grab the cigarette was stronger. Duncan put it in his mouth.
“You can fuck my monkey,” Blondie said, handing Duncan his lit cigarette.
“Thanks,” Duncan said between his teeth. He lit is cigarette and watched Blondie return to his sitting position by the old man. “Have we met?”
“Not formally,” the old man said. “I’m Bill. This is my friend Kurt. We’re with the Junkie League.”
“Is that a bowling league?”
“Do we look like goddamned bowlers to you?” Blondie asked.
Duncan squinted. Bill…William. William S. Burroughs. And Kurt. Kurt Cobain. Of course. This was a bad dream. That was the only way to explain it. Any second now, he’d wake up. He took a drag off his cigarette and exhaled. The menthol tasted real enough, but you can dream tastes…right?
“Where’s Janis Joplin?” Duncan asked. “She get stuck in traffic?”
“Purgatory,” the old man said.
“So, what, you must be the ghosts of junkies past. And you’re here to show me why I need heroin back in my life,” he said, ashing his cigarette on the floor. “We should have done this at Christmas. It would have made a great Dickens story.”
The two visitors exchanged glances. “Ghosts?” the old man said. “I suppose you could call us ghosts. Spirits. If that’s the sort of bunkem you believe in.”
Spirits, ghosts—what was the fucking difference? They weren’t real. “If this is an intervention, you forgot one thing,” Duncan said.
“And what’s that?” the old man asked.
“I’m sober. Ten years sober.” Duncan paused. “Nine. Whatever. You can’t hold an intervention for a sober man.”
“You can,” Bill said, “if your intent is bring someone back into the fold. We want you back in the Junkie League.”
“I was never part of any group.”
“Of course you were. We all are, all of us who use. The users, the abusers. The fiends. The addicts. Once a member, always a member. And because we like you, we’re going to wave the dues. Just for you.”
“That’s very kind.”
“Don’t thank us,” the old man said. “We serve a higher purpose.”
“God,” Duncan said.
The old man shook his head. “Junk.”
“Same thing,” Blondie said with a smirk.
The old man turned to his friend. “Finally, you smile.”
“Don’t get used to it, Grandpa.”
“Let me ask you something,” the old man said, returning his attention to Duncan. “Are you happy now?”
“Not content. Happy.”
“Does it matter?” Duncan asked.
“You can lie to us, but you’re going to have a hard time lying to yourself. The one hustler the mark can never beat is the mark inside himself. I’d bet the last time you were happy was when you were high. I’m talking about blissfully happy. I’m talking about little-orgasms-in-your-brain happy.”
The old man was right. Once you experienced real, true happiness, nothing else could compare. No matter how easily your daughter brought a smile to your face, no matter how great sex was with your wife, no matter how satisfying it was to land at that top spot on theNew York Timesbestseller list, nothing could compare to the high.
He looked around for an ashtray, and, finding none, stubbed his cigarette out on the nightstand. Duncan’s anger at these two interlopers, these spirits—these not-spirits—was growing by the minute. He was pissed at himself too. Why couldn’t he just wake up? He felt chained to this room, to this body, to this mind. That was why he didn’t just run out the door, he told himself. Dreams were a kind of box, a box that you couldn’t think outside of. “You were my heroes,” he said. “You were like the Batman and Superman of junk.”
“I’d prefer to be Wonder Woman,” Blondie said.
Duncan crossed the room to the desk. He picked up the twenty bag. It looked so tiny. Nothing like what he would have shot back in the day.
“Just one last time,” the old man said. “For old time’s sake.”
It was tempting, especially within the confines of a dream. Without opening the box, he knew what he’d find inside. Maybe he’d stick the needle in his arm and that’s when he’d wake up. No one would ever know. Just like his relapse, it would be his little secret.
This wasn’t a dream.
This was a nightmare.
He couldn’t give in to temptation. Even in some bullshit fantasy.
“Sorry, guys,” he said. “I’ve already taken my last ride.”
“What’s so funny? Like you have any room to talk,” Duncan said.
“Hey, I didn’t OD,” Blondie said. “I killed myself.”
“You’re saying that like there’s a difference,” Duncan said. “And I have plenty of room to talk. I’ve never overdosed.”
The old man cocked an eyebrow. “No?”
Duncan looked at the bag in his hand again. It was empty. He glanced over his shoulder at the bed, where he’d been sitting moments earlier. His unconscious body was still there, sprawled out on top of the comforter—breathing, but barely. His arm was tied off, a needle just out of reach.
The old man smiled. “Welcome back to the Junkie League, kid.”
This story originally appeared in If I Only Had Cocaine, and Other Drug Stories.