With Plenty of Water

Whether or not it was caused by his peculiar mix of sedentary lifestyle, semichronic dehydration and high oxalate levels, my father was prone to kidney stones and left a bottle half full of Demerol in the medicine cupboard, just east of aspirin, south of Valium, west of cough syrup and morphine. Unattended, ready for action. I assume he and my mother left these and similar delectables unhidden because they trusted their remaining son, age 17, to leave them be. It must have been trust, because I can‘t imagine they forgot the late, chilly Saturday morning just 13 years prior, when my friend Todd Renner and I, hitherto reasonably bright young spawn, decided to go poking around in my visiting paternal grandmother’s luggage, found two bottles of pills and took them on a toddling voyage around the neighborhood, strolling and sampling, choking on and spitting out the crunchy bitter dust and biting into it again. Brilliant. So at the same time my grandmother almost died without her heart medicine, Todd and I almost died with it.

But who would trust an inquisitive 17-year-old, a freshly deflowered boy in his last summer before college, around an irresistibly half-full bottle of Demerol, so ripe, so seductively poised not a foot deep in the shadowlands of the medicine cabinet? No parents of mine. So maybe I should abandon the assumption of trust; they must‘ve just spaced out.

We’d moved into a small, pale-green rented house on the outskirts of Long Beach, where Seal Beach meets Rossmore and Los Alamitos, two days after I graduated from high school in the Antelope Valley, where we‘d spent the last two years. My parents had jobs in Long Beach. At summer’s end, I‘d be moving into the dorms at UCLA.

I found work as a penny-masher at Mary’s Gate Village, a homely little tourist-sucking encampment at the entrance to the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor. Several small businesses there were owned by Jepsen Enterprises. Proprietor Mike Jepsen seemed like a nice enough bloated neofascist businessman -- everyone in the Village had something bad to say about him -- and he often brought his obnoxious chip-off-the-old-bloated-neofascist block, Mike Junior, to badger and spy on employees. My job was to dress up like a Tom of Finland sailor and operate a gaudy chrome souvenir-penny machine positioned near the entrance to the ship. Tourists would give me two quarters and one penny. I‘d pocket the quarters for Jepsen, line the penny up with a mark on the machine and rotate the oversize sport-utility gears until a flat, Lincoln-less copper ellipse, embossed with the Mary, was shat out the other end.

Penny-mashers keep odd hours. After work I’d often find myself alone in the anonymous pale-green house, walled off from the neighborhood of strangers; no familiar faces for miles. Eventually I found my way into the medicine cupboard (overflow from the medicine cabinet), into the forbidden lands of West Demerol and . . . what‘s this?

To the Demerol’s immediate east was morphine. Liquid. Injectable. Two years prior, when my older brother was dying, we‘d shoot morphine into his Broviac catheter -- straight into the heart -- because my mom tried but could not find any heroin in the Antelope Valley. (I hear this is no longer a problem.) After my brother died, the parents apparently decided to keep the morphine around, just in case . . . just in case.

The morphine was tempting, but I didn’t like the idea of syringes (a few inches to the south). I knew Demerol was chemically similar to morphine, that it was the stuff Dad took when he was giving birth, and that, well, there it was, ready to go, without needles.

I‘ve always done my research before using drugs. I checked our local PDR and found that Demerol can produce not only euphoric sedation but nausea, vomiting, respiratory depression, dysphoria, hallucinations, shock, cardiac arrest, and the bluish discoloration of the skin that often accompanies coma and death. This batch had expired a couple years back, so I called the local multinational pharmaceutical conglomerate.

”Is it safe to take expired Demerol?“

”Safe? I suppose so. It’s just not likely to be as potent.“

”Thanks.“ Each tablet contained 50 milligrams of euphoria andor death. Figured I should start with half. I extracted one pill, replaced the cap, flipped the bottle upside down and then slowly and delicately right side up, leaving it, I hoped, just as half full or half empty as I‘d found it. (Grandma’s body spinning with pride.) I split the tablet in two, along the seam, pocketed one half and downed the other with plenty of water. I went to my room, grabbed a book and lay down in bed, hoping for something closer to euphoria than death.

I repeated the procedure once or twice a week for the next month -- eating half a Demerol, reading, drawing, writing, fantasizing, listening to music, drinking water. It was nice. No side effects beyond grogginess, which is, to this day, the most heroic way to contend with Orange County.

In fact, my drug abuse seemed to have a positive effect on my Lincoln-desecration-novelty career. Two weeks before I was to ship off (40 miles) to become a faux-athletic art student, the elder Jepsen gave me a 50-cents-an-hour raise, promoted me to Apprentice Neofascist Candlemaker and put me to work creating those super-funkay, multidip, curlicue candles often seen burning bedside in ‘70s 8mm porno loops. (”Say, baby, are you into, like, wax?“). This put me in a rather awkward position. I hadn’t yet told Jepsen about my plans for college. But now, was college really such a good idea? Jepsen speculated that, with his guidance, I might have the Long Beach multidip curlicue candle market cornered in less time than it takes to earn a bachelor‘s degree. And should I really expect college to teach me more than taking Demerol and making candles? I thanked Jepsen and sped home to ruminate with a double dose -- my last ever -- one milligram per penny.


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