Teetering.

“I’m kind of scared of it, yaknow’msayin? Like, I’m gonna lose my edge.”

He’s talking about stopping heroin. He’s a lifelong dealer, so that has to change, too. There’s a crude but clear slogan in the Fellowships around here: “A monkey can’t sell bananas.”

“Doing what I do, you know, you make enemies. For all I know, I relax, I forget to look behind me one day, and something from 15 years ago comes up. That’s it for me.”

He’s still wearing a hospital gown but it’s backward, showing his chest. He sprawls with the affected don’t-give-a-damn manner common to the street guys, but there’s a restlessness.

He should go to a residential program after he leaves but he doesn’t talk about it. It’s his first time getting help, and he doesn’t know anything about recovery. Instead, he talks the three cardinal just haftas. Just hafta be strong, just hafta remember how bad it was, just hafta get a job and keep busy. 

Me, I translate strong to mean walk blindly into temptation and expect not to give in. Memory fades too, scary fast.

The other things he talks about are his girlfriend, and moving to the county. Getting a house to themselves, after getting a warehouse job.

Half the time he talks about these things he’s not looking at me. Then he sounds like  he’s making up a story and listening if it sounds right, or maybe trying to convince himself.

He reminds me of this soldier who left Afghanistan and landed in a bottle. The two of them look nothing alike, but the soldier talked about marrying his girlfriend and getting a job in the same way; like it was some place he had only read about. I remember thinking, “So that’s what the thousand yard stare looks like.”

The man in front of me has taken some bullets, too. There are still some left in him. I reckon he’s dealt a few as well, but I don’t inquire after that. Best to wait until he’s willing to tell the truth, rather than having him lie and then have to stick to it.

One minute he talks about how the drug life kept him sharp, and strong. He’s afraid if he’s not hustling, if he drops his guard, something – seen or unseen – is going to get him. It’s a belief rooted in a kind of backward Darwinism. If you’re still alive, you must be the fittest. So what kept you alive must be working.

The next minute he talks about how the drug kept him numb, and mean. How he’s chasing a high that barely even happens any longer.

“I lie to my family. I hurt people, you know. I break laws all over, and then the law takes my freedom. I’m tired of all that.”

He’s never held a real job for longer than a month. I’d lay solid money he’s never written a check or had a bank account. Never had to swallow his temper when a boss talks down to him.

Early on, the dealers have a similar problem to the prostitutes – access to large amounts of cash fast. They have records, records that include things like “with intent to” or “with a firearm,” so bad jobs are hard to get and good ones might as well be on the moon. Unlike the prostitutes they make victims and nobody thinks they are victims. They get locked up for long times for doing very, very bad things.  Drugs make the money, then drugs take the money. The meat grinder keeps turning and young men’s corpses pile up.

He’s right about old times coming back. You can quit the life but it may not quit you. Somebody he burned might be waiting outside his mother’s or sister’s or girlfriend’s house one day.

With all that: Here he is, though. I’ve met a lot of men in his line of work. Some take pride in what they’ve become, slyly bragging about what they think they’ve gotten away with; or just doing their best to impress me with their brutality and callousness before talking about how they’re tired of it.

This fellow, he’s not in that spot. There’s real remorse there, mixed in with a fear. Fear, I think, of peace. Having it but not belonging in it, or finding out it’s just a story he’s been sold. Having heard his history, I can’t say I would trust it, either.

A question everybody faces, but magnified twenty fold for him: What do you pick, what you know or what you want? Hope or fear?

I like the ambivalent ones. The ones who want to stop but are afraid of everything that could go wrong, who still remember the good things about the drug life.

They are the ones for whom a thumb on the scale could tip it. They’re the ones you can help.

I say, “Sounds like there was a lot you liked about that life.”

He looks at me, just a little surprised. I’m supposed to be lecturing him. I won’t.

Yeah,” he says. “I know it’s crazy, but there was.”

“So when it comes down to it, how are you going to keep yourself from doing what you want?”

“I’m not even thinking about that now.”

“You will, and you are.”

He doesn’t say anything. That’s good.

“You’re going to have to deal with a lot of things you have never dealt with. That’s going to be rough.”

“Yeah.”

“You think you’re going to do that by yourself?”

He looks at me, the tiredness and sadness looking out of place in that sprawl.

“No.”

It’s on.

 

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