SHORT STORIES: ‘Running Mad, Headlong Into Oblivion’
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Interstate 64, eastbound. Almost to Virginia. On the radio, Groovy 94.1, volume up to thirty. Karen’s making a fucking racket, got her head out the window, howling, “So put meee on a highwaaay,” along with The Eagles, “And show meeee a sign. And take it! To the limit. One more tiiiiiime,” and she’s so fucked up on that Robitussin/Xanax punch we drank at her trailer that she has this slur that’s way worse than a “drunk slur,” more like the slur of someone who’s missing a piece of her brain, and I’m driving blind through the blizzard. Karen is skinny, with that meth face thing à la Eddie Van Halen, and her teeth are beautiful, but her Wal-Mart clothes don’t fit right and she’s always on her way back from the Go-Mart with several packs of cigarettes, Marlboros, in a plastic bag. Karen just got out of rehab in Maryland. Karen was supposed to get her kids back after the state put up a fight for custody.
“Why the fuck didn’t the crystals work?” Karen wants to know.
I give her a helpless look; that’s a question I can’t answer.
I’m twenty-three, which means Karen has to be at least thirty-five. I left New York to come back to West Virginia, where I had the dumb luck to get a job in social work. It’s a shitty job, my clients the predictable “hillbillies” you’d expect, people whose fortunes rise and fall with the number of kids they have on Medicaid, how much money is in their Black Lung benefits, people whose lives were destroyed by the coal companies so long ago the story now feels apocryphal. I’ll tell you something. There’s a lot of really repulsive shit in this world. There are some very ill-bred human beings here in West Virginia and they’re very repulsive and unreal. But there isn’t one thing in this place that’s as repulsive and unreal as the way the people of West Virginia have been treated for the past hundred-and-fifty years. Anyway, Karen and I were brought together by the case worker at CPS. He said he needed someone to go pick up a client at the Maryland rehab center for a court date and that it paid mileage—“Ka-ching!” I thought—and he wanted to hire me to help him put “whatever this was” to bed. I told him I’d do it “because money” and then I drove out to Maryland and picked her up.
She was prettier in person than in her file photo. Her lashes were almost wooly worm-thick and her cheeks had reddened triangles, probably from snorting cocaine cut with cattle de-wormer. But she had one of those faces, the kind you look into and you see she’s had a hard life. Mother of two kids, a boy and a girl, by two separate men, neither of them her husband, a squad of mental health professionals according to her file—psychologists, psychiatrists, behaviorists—a pocketful of acronyms—SSRIs, MAOIs, CBT, DBT—depression, obsession, addiction, anxiety. I picked her up and we drove back to West Virginia, listening to Drake and even fighting about whether he was black or bi-racial. Then she talked about how she’d been clean but then CPS popped a random on her and she was real pissed off about it. I asked her if she was nervous. There was a hesitation and she seemed a little offended. She talked about witchcraft, saying in her yard she’d bury the occasional magic crystal and had come, over the years, to believe that “the crystal magic” was in sync with god and the planet Jupiter. She told me about how she once had uterine cancer but cured it with magic crystals, and was now, probably, going to use the magic to get her kids back.
She had faith.
I’m very skeptical by nature, and the counsellor had warned me that telling Karen my concerns would damage her psychological development, and that the issues might never be resolved. “So whatever you believe, the crystals make it happen?” I said.
She shrugged. “I know what you’re thinkin’. But I, I been havin’ these dreams. Weird shit’s been happenin’ to me.” She paused thoughtfully. “Like I been listenin’ to the radio sometimes and I hear these voices—like just for a second—sayin’, like, ‘You gonna get your kids back.’”
“That just blows my mind,” I said, not believing it.
“I just got the best feelin’ about it!” Karen said.
The next day, it took the judge ten minutes to tell Karen she wasn’t getting her kids back. Karen was shaking and her wrinkles tightened into a grimace of anger. “BUT MY KIDS,” she wailed, rocking. “Surely there’s a way. A way to get them.”
The judge started talking about how Karen’s life was a total shit situation. Within seven minutes, he was able to outline that, at the moment she lost custody, her heroin blood level was .52 mgs per liter. That, and the year before she’d been on probation for physically fighting a pregnant girl at an urgent care. Plus, she had her mugshot on the Southern Regional website and had been cited for manufacturing methamphetamine.
“You don’t deserve children,” he said.
That put Karen in a tailspin, and when we got to her trailer, two hours later, we did a couple lines and she was freaking out real bad so I gave her a Xanax and then I ate a couple myself. She went into the kitchen and started pouring codeine cough syrup into a punch bowl with Jimmy Carter’s face on it and then threw in a handful of Jolly Ranchers and I thought, fuck it, and started drinking. We were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking that sickly-sweet punch, and the scene I was in was the very scene I’d come out of, the same scene I’d wanted to escape, a scene that was dead to me, and I mean that literally: many of the people I used to knew, or at least people I’d grown up with, were dying of meth and pills. But I wasn’t at a great point in my life leading up to that night. I wanted to be a writer, but I hadn’t managed to write anything. I dropped out of NYU, and, after a couple years in the city, came back home. But I was never honest with you why I came back. I came back because I wanted perspective.
Sitting at the table, I looked at bits of Karen’s life. An eviction notice, neatly halved. An empty vial of prescription pills, the label scratched off. The worn leather of her mother’s Bible, the bookmark stuck on Ezekiel 37. On that page, said Karen, flesh returned to the bones. I thought of, like, Star Trek. Not the J.J. Abrams one, the real one.
“Do you believe in god?” Karen asked.
“No,” I said. “Not anymore.”
“You must,” she said. “You’re here.”
“Then,” I asked softly, “what am I doing here?”
“The crystals knew you’d understand.”
“The crystals failed you,” I said, mock-seriously.
“BUT I HAD THESE DREAMS, JOE—no, these visions,” she moaned, and then it was later and my iPhone was ringing and it was the case worker from CPS and he was telling me I had to take Karen back to rehab in Maryland. I told Karen and she started vomiting, and I had her by the shoulders and I was taking her very slowly, calmly, to the bathroom and while she was vomiting, into the toilet, she kept giggling, asking, “Do you have faith in anything?”
I finished the codeine punch, peed, and grabbed some extra clothes from Karen’s dresser and then we got back in my car and now here we are, driving back to Maryland. Karen’s got her head out the window, singing, and winter hits hard. It’s not a dusting of winter, but more like a weird kind of “future winter,” and it’s snowing so hard I can’t see at all, but I’m so fucked up that I just remove my foot from the brake and run mad, headlong into oblivion.
“The crystals said it was gonna be a piece a cake,” Karen says—maybe even shouts it. “They said I was gonna get my kids back. That it was all workin’ out.” The snow’s coming down and I’m feeling pretty sick and trying to drive and I try to pretend that Karen didn’t say anything, but she says it again.
“You’re all right,” I say. “We’ll handle it.”
And we’re flying around those old mountain roads, looking into the face of death, saying, “Whatever, man.” And I feel I’ve made a big mistake. That I’ve stepped over a line into a world where I shouldn’t be. I try to tap the brake, but the road is goose shit and we spin out into the median, facing the oncoming traffic, a stream of cars led by a semi. I try to accelerate, but the snow isn’t giving me an inch. I wonder if the semi will able to make the turn without hitting the patch of ice or simply kill us. Ice, I think. Death. Karen and I will be buried under the ice.
“Karen, we’re gonna die.” I say.
She shakily shows me a string of crystals around her neck, these cheap old crystals from Wal-Mart, and I feel my heart squeeze inside my chest like oyster meat.
“Magic crystals,” she says.
For a moment I sit in indecision, hands on the wheel. The semi lurches, hitting the ice, and it spins around with a backward spray of snow and it comes right for us. I close my eyes. I’m not believing in some crystals, I think. What have I done with my life? There are crystals flying through my mind as I sense with startling clarity something flying above me. My eyes flick open and up and, from my inverted vantage, I see the underside-parts of the semi dangling above the windshield, the truck sucked upward, rushing not at us but over us.
“Magic crystals,” I repeat dreamily.
I randomly pick an Econolodge and I sit there for a minute while Karen gets us a room and then I get out of the car and I rest my ass on the ass-level hood, and smoke alone. I sit in the dark in the parking lot and look for a long time at the clouds. I see Karen in a hotel room, no blinds, no curtains. She’s changed into a Tweety Bird t-shirt that shows off her nipples and a pair of Victoria’s Secret sweatpants that similarly advantage her ass. I walk up the stairs and go in the hotel room and I find the Tweety Bird t-shirt and Victoria’s Secret sweatpants draped on the bedpost. Then, in the dark, I see Karen, walking toward me, in her bra and panties, and I straighten up, eager, until I realize her stomach is grotesquely distended and riddled with marble-like lumps, like a bitch pregnant with a litter of ten puppies. Maybe Karen really did have uterine cancer, I decide, and the crystals really did cure it.
“Am I all right?” she asks.
“Sure. Sure, you’re all right. Yeah,” I say in this unhurried manner. “Real all right.”
I take off my clothes, enjoying the feeling of being naked in front of someone, and then we both stand there, terrified, not knowing what to do. I walk over to her and I kiss her on the lips and then she fucks me with a kindness that cannot be taught.
“Maybe this is why you’re here,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe.”
I have faith in this woman.
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