Illustration by Jordin Isip
Paul just sat there. I’ve never seen a dead person sit, but I have a nasty hunch a dead man sitting would appear much like Paul did that day in the pizza place — minus the monkey on his back. “I tried to kick a couple of weeks ago,” he started in. “I was sick for 15 days with no sign of it letting up, so I just said, ‘Fuck it.’” I was saddened, but somehow fascinated — impressed, even — that this lab rat of a person was still alive. “Can I git a pull from yer Pepsi?” he said as he simultaneously snatched and sipped from my wife’s Big Gulp. “Keep it,” she said. He might as well have had a neon sign on his forehead that flashed “HEPATITIS HEPATITIS HEPATITIS.” He scared the shit out of her. He scared the shit out of me.
This was the worst I’d ever seen him. This was also the last I’d ever see of him. That was nine years ago. All the War on Drugs ever meant to Paul was that scoring required more caution and connections. If one of his sources got popped, he had to have another set up and ready to go. The Drug War forced him to build a better, stronger safety net for his jones. Paul may have been a junkie, but he wasn’t dumb. I’ve met desperate, unscrupulous, cheese-eating, dog-kicking junkies, but I’ve never met a dumb one.
I ran into Paul at the first Narcotics Anonymous meeting I ever went to, 11 years ago. He was all white knuckles. Every bit of his strange charisma and talent had been reduced to something restless, desperate and weak. He looked like someone had kicked his front teeth out and shoved a 3-pound ice cube up his ass. The exact moment I laid eyes on him in that meeting was the last time I felt sorry for myself. I was pretty fuckin’ bad, but he was having a harder go by far with his newfound sobriety. I may have hit rock bottom, but Paul seemed to have taken up residency there.
He tried. God bless his scamp ass, he reallytried. I saw him at those meetings for about a month. He was there every fuckin’ day, spewing 12-step rhetoric ad nauseam. He’d found a new religion. And then came that day I was dreading. Paul didn’t show. It’s as if I actually heard the thump when he fell off the wagon. That particular meeting felt like a funeral to me. Outside of the occasional Paul sighting on “pill hill” (an infamous druggie ’hood in my old city), I wasn’t in contact with him anymore. I moved forward. I went to school, got a degree, got hitched, had a child, started a career, bought a Hyundai. Paul was no longer a part of my life — until that day my wife, my 2-year-old child and I stumbled upon him in that pizza place.
Or, should I say, he stumbled upon us. And dang! He looked like shit. It was grotesque to what extent his habit had had him. That gray-cardboard pallor. Those fuckin’ green-black sockets that had once housed his teeth. The not-of-this-earth stink that was wafting from him. He was Evil Dead, and all of a sudden he was part of my nice li’l family outing. Thank God my daughter was too young to register the one-man horror show going down right in front of us.
“Wow,” Paul said. “You got a kid? That’s kew-el!” And then his volume drops: “Hey king, I got some stellar tar. You know I’ll fix you up right.” I declined, explaining that I had remained sober since those days we hobnobbed at N.A. meetings. I wanted to lay into him about his obvious infraction, soliciting with the kid there and all. But desperation had swallowed up etiquette for him years ago; my ranting would have fallen on deaf ears. Instead we continued to talk about sobriety, life, the struggle to stay clean. He didn’t hang long. He was, after all, on a mission. As disastrous as this crashing was, I was sad to see him go. I wanted him to get clean, and to let that charismatic kid I used to know re-emerge. And I was sad about the unlikeliness of this actually happening.
Rumor has it he’s still on the living side of the grave, and still using. He’s a legend of sorts. Around my old city, the mention of his name always provokes a “That guy’s still alive?” from those who haven’t seen or heard from him in a while, or, from those of us who still know he’s around, “He’s still alive!” Barely.