Why is it C.D.’s most gritty: My most gritty story is about cocaine addiction.
Sinvergüenza by C.D. Collins
A coke head and a junkie are two different things. With junk you hit up and just drop out. You feel very benevolent, but all you can do is sit there trembling and nauseated. Your eyes slam shut. With cocaine you are fascinated by your own mind, you feel smart and interesting and full of energy. Your life is suddenly ideal. Then the high is tainted by the craving for more, and you rev and rev till you climb the walls. I do coke but I’m not in the gutter, you understand. I’m a worker. During the week, I save all my money past rent and food, for my Friday night date with the snowman.
Both my jobs are seasonal. Factory work in the summers; winters, I cook. Right now I’m at the Delmonte plant, in Stockton Californina. Peaches. Tomatoes. The factory houses three levels under one rippled tin roof. From the outside, its just a square concrete building about the size of a city block with two stacks on both sides pouring out steam round the clock. My building is the actual canning plant, the floors are concrete with colored stripes leading to different departments. No walls inside, just sections for each job and layers of people working the lines.
When I applied for the job, I expected a lot of fancy incomprehensible machines. But everything was simple, primitive, even, like something a tinkering kid might figure out for a science project.
I work with hoses three inches around and a steam gun that melts people inside their banana suits. The bosses didn’t think a female could do this job, especially not one five feet even and weighing it at l0l.
“Half-pint female like you, I don’t know,” the big boss said, sizing me up and down. He looked to be an old fullback gone to seed. He shrugged his shoulders what the hell.
First few weeks I admit I was strictly faking it. Even now it isn’t easy. The sweat pours from beginning to end of my shift with me holding to my limit doing double time. I’ve picked up five pounds and dropped an inch in pant size. I’m solid.
You wouldn’t believe how much Freestone peach crud can accumulate on a vat in a matter of minutes. Clean up crew works on adrenaline. We’re everywhere at once, doing things no one else will do. I do things even clean-up crew shuns, jumping out on ledges that are covered with peach slime and swinging down to get at the backs of the vats. If I go into work too tired to face it, I toot a few lines and cover the whole factory. I read the Peruvian Indians chewed cocoa leaves when they were traveling for days. I imagine myself an Indian scaling mountains and high-tailing it across the desert while I shovel hard down among the flumes.
I spend a lot of my time on the catwalks doing the high-risk hopping around.
“Hey, monkey,” the foreman, Fred, calls to me. “Watch your step.” This other guy, Paulie, looks up with all concerned. This Paulie has a special interest in my not breaking my neck because he has a jones for my ass. I can’t take him seriously, though, because of his duck tail which shows out from underneath his hard hat.
If I said the factory was primitive, I did not mean it wasn’t beautiful. The tomatoes run the chutes like churning rubies. The peaches come bunching down like fragrant, overripe flowers. And for all the sweat and sloppiness of the job, the result is precision: long white belts with perfect peach halves, tins in moving in procession after being stamp-sealed, bathed and twirled into their labels.
The factory itself is cruel to the body. Sorters stand on metal or concrete, shifting back and forth. One woman got her arm hung at the end of the belt and was wedged there with her bones breaking because the foreman had refused to tell the line workers where the on-off switch was. I figure if I can keep moving, I’ll avoid the pain.
The accidents are the prettiest part, like when the tanks overflow and peach or strawberry chiffon poofs out. The factory produces six million gallons of water a day. One day a pipe burst and couldn’t be fixed until the entire factory floor was half a foot deep. While the afternoon shift left, I lay on the catwalk and watched the white boots doubled by the water filing out. The whole factory reflected up like the ocean casting back a monstrous, machine-age sky.
When I was little, my father was stationed at a base in Spain. He took my brother and me to bullfights on Saturday. To me, they weren’t cruel. For me the blood running down was just brightness, like the colored banners on the banderillas and the matador’s suit of lights. At twenty-five I still fantasize being a matador. I wear a pink brocade suit, skin-tight. I never flinch.
Today is Friday and I’m feeling good. I’ve got everything planned. I wedge the steam gun into a safe place to keep it from snaking all over the factory spewing scalding water. I finish just as the shift whistle sounds. I twist the steam off and remove the hard, heavy gloves. The belt winds down and I can hear the workers. One big sigh.
On my way to the lockers I feel a hand on my shoulder. I know its Paulie before I turn around.
“Some of us are going for beers. Wanna come?” His hair is slick and shiny, blueblack like handsome hoods in Sunday morning cartoons. His chest pumps out beneath his tight T-shirt like he had it inflated. Funny how men try to look as big as they can, women as small.
My mind goes back to last weekend. I was at home arranging my works on my bureau when the phone rang. My sister. She was having trouble with her husband. I never called her back.
“Gotta get home,” I say to Paulie. “I have some calls to make.”
He wonders can he call me later.
Maybe tomorrow I tell him and give him the right phone number on a book of matches.
“You okay?” he says. He has that look of concern that used to always haul me in back before I discovered what fakes people were.
I tell him I’m fine but I’m ready to scream. Thinking about getting high has made me urgent.
At home, I run my bath deep and hot. I strip my clothes off and stuff them in the hamper. I lay out my works: a liqueur glass with distilled water, cotton, rubbing alcohol, a sterilized spoon on a clean saucer, , an Exacto knife, the syringe, and the white envelope.
Then I’m ready for the bath. I put one foot into the water, too hot, but let my foot find the bottom and turn red. Stirring the water makes the heat unbearable. Then the other foot. I sink down, slowly, hardly moving, lean back wrapped in hot silk. My mind is calm. It’s all right, I tell myself.
The first few times I shot cocaine, my boyfriend Tim did it for me. He worked at a veterinary clinic so he always had clean needles. The crystals were totally pure, pharmaceutical cocaine like Sherlock Holmes used. As soon as the drug entered my bloodstream, my heart raced as if it would burst and a giant egg of terror broke and spread inside my chest; this was followed by a sensation of hilarity which reached through my fear and yanked me to the other side. An overwhelming in-love type orgasm rushed through my body in an long ecstatic wave. Everything was suddenly charming and magical. We pushed the windows open and listened to the palmetto leaves slice deliciously through the breeze. It seemed the world flowed in and filled our veins.
The second time was good, but not as good as the first. I became secretive. I shot up while Tim was not there and more and more I wanted to do it alone. Now I have to be alone.
I get out of the tub, oil my skin, and slip into my satin robe.
Tonight I have half a gram. Two good shots, and two scrap shots.
I worked like an animal all week, and only did a few lines. I deserve this.
This is my world. Where I earn my dollars through honest sweat, push the limits, see just what kind of distortions of reality I can return from.
I find the triangle of paper in the bottom of my drawer. I am already shaking and my throat feels tight. I’m very slow in my movements, quite careful in my ritual. I am right there. I lift some of the cocaine out of the paper with the Exacto knife. I am careful taking the cap off the needle, which I do now, I draw 25 milliliters of water into the syringe and then squirt it into the spoon.
I stir the powder and water with the red needle cap until the powder is dissolved. Then I make a tiny ball of cotton, roll it between my fingers and drop it into the center of the spoon. This filters any large impurities. We learn from the ones who died this way.
Now I swab the inside of my elbow with alcohol, make a fist,
loosen, make a fist, until my veins stand up. I am very excited. I place the needle point into the cotton, draw the solution into the syringe. I flick the side to get the air up to the top, then push it out with the plunger. It takes a lot of air to interrupt the heart enough to kill, but air bubbles hurt.
I place the tip of the needle, slanted-angle up, and then with a tiny thrust, I am in. Just slightly I pull back on the plunger with my thumb and the silk parachute of my blood seeps into the syringe and billows. This is good. It means I am definitely in.
Slowly, I depress the plunger. As soon as I am in the vein, I can taste cocaine in my mouth and in my nose, not quite a scent, the clean longed-for flavor that means I am about to get high. My mouth drops open and I am riveted on the needle in my arm, careful not to move and lose the vein. I check it, still in. I push the last little bit in fast and I can barely keep going, but I do, pulling back on the plunger, filling it with blood and then faster in, feeling a huge rush, just at the edge of control. I take out the needle and lie back, pressing cotton into the crook of my arm. I have it. I want it. I have it.
Every pore of my body is laden with pleasure and there is an almost audible buzzing in my head.
The phone rings. I can answer it without getting up.
My mother. “Do you know what is happening with your sister. It’s Mark. He’s beat her up again.”
I can hear my mother’s Chihuahua yipping.
I tell her the clean-up crew is being called in for overtime. “I’ll call you as soon as I get home,” I say. “Promise.”
I jerk the phone wire out of the wall and reach for the syringe, greedily shooting it in a stream into my mouth– that pleasant bitter numbness. Knowing how soon it will end starts to ruin the sensation. I’ve lost two, maybe three minutes of a fifteen minute high on the phone.
I make my second shot. This is a large hit, and for the first few moments I am out of control; all I can do is lie down. I winnow down to the core of my mind, to the tenderness and hurt. Here I find my sister, very small and full of hope, I see Dixie Green, my best friend from second grade, her hair the color of a sorrel horse.
A brave matador allows himself brushes with the bull, stepping aside with a flourish from behind his tiny cape. The picador must move around the bull and dig his lance into the giant neck muscle, weakening it, so that the bull finally lowers his head. Otherwise it is impossible for the matador to reach the heart. If the matador stabs the bull to the side, the sword lodges in its lung. The bull won’t die immediately, but stands drunkenly, head down, bleeding from the nose and mouth.
The crowd gets furious. “Sinvergüenza!” they shout, “Sinvergüenza,” You have no shame.
But if he is brave, the matador points his sword toward the bull and advances. He arches directly over the bull’s horns and plunges the sword into the heart. If he has been skillful, the bull dies immediately.
When the heartbeat leaves the bull, there is a corresponding blood heat in the heart of the crowd, a sensation of power, near riot, a delusion that death can be defeated; this, through the courteous and formal man bowing in the center of the ring. Women throw hats, everyone throws flowers, the lame throw crutches hoping to be healed. The bull is bred for this moment.
I didn’t know then that the bull was kept in a darkened pen without food and water for three days, then released before a crowd thirsty to see life forced from him, a debilitated and tortured animal that in the end cannot even hold up his head.
In ten minutes, maybe fifteen, I make my way back to the spoon for my scrap shot. I am hurried, knowing the shot will be a good one. This time I don’t get the vein the first time and when I do, it infiltrates, and I lose it.
I start over, over and over again, until the high has degenerated into obsession and anxiety. I spend half an hour poking holes in my arm, till I get a good scrap shot, but I am not as high as the first shot and I am immediately possessed by a desire for more. I boot it over and over, jabbing at the vein, seeing air in the syringe, then blood, then the blood clotting. I start over with a spoon full of blood, only slightly bitter with cocaine. Removing the clot and shooting the blood, barely bitter into my mouth, missing, squirting blood on my face, blood against the wall.
I wake to the sound of pounding at the door. I put up my works and wash the blood from my face.
I see Paulie through the high square window.
“I’ve been calling you all night,” he says when I open the door a few inches. He rubs his arms as if he is cold.
He is speaking but I don’t hear him. The noise is in my ears again. I lie down and close my eyes. I am repentant, prayerful. I will never do this again.
Paulie lies next to me on top of the sheets, if he notices the bloodstains he doesn’t say anything. The scent coming off Paulie is musky and minty and sweet. A boy smell. I thought I could always come back to this kind of desire, but now it seems a parody of my real desire.
I say to myself I will not do this again, but I know I will. Like wrapping the rest of the cocaine, cocaine I promised myself I would not shoot, in an envelope, in another envelope, inscribed with the name of someone I think I love, someone who represents goodness. Of course I tore into both envelopes, did the cocaine. Nothing mattered as much as that.
I seem to float slightly above my bed while Paulie holds onto me. He has relaxed and his breathing has lengthened. Knowing he is asleep, I look at him. His lips droop a little, his good muscles soft. I see for a moment that he means no harm. When he wakes up, I’ll get him out of here and track my dealer down. I don’t need this guy or anyone else and that’s honestly a relief. I’d rather be alone with my bath and my works fucking my arm with a needle.
Some days at work, I come back from lunch a few minutes early and lie on the top catwalk, gazing at the colored pipes. I like it up there where it’s barren; I like the transitory, machine quality. I feel like I’ve always been there. I hear the cans being pulled down by the sensing switches that know when the level is low. The edge of a can is so sharp it can slice your finger in two. They’re lined up on a reverse roller coaster, the fruit and syrup dumped in, the lid is stamped on. Once a cricket jumped off Fred’s shoulder into a can, dead center on top the fruit. Before he could say anything, the lid came down and the can was whisked away. We always tried to picture the chump who got those peaches. I savor those moments before the whistle, listening to the cans rattling by. I can distinguish them by their size, from pings to clunks, five separate notes.