Fiction by Veronica Miller
Carl knew that something was wrong when he turned onto Grissom Street. He slowed the truck when he felt the prickle on his scalp move down his spine.
“What is it?” he whispered. No answer, just increasing foreboding. He turned in the driveway and turned off the truck. He sat there listening to the tick of the engine cooling rapidly in the Utah November air. So quiet.
Carl grabbed his lunchbox cooler off the seat beside him and swung his long skinny legs out of the truck. He winced a little when his left boot hit the pavement. His toe still hurt from that goddamn rebar he stepped on three days ago, and now he had blisters from the replacement boots too. Another inch in a couple of directions, and he would now have stigmata instead of blisters.
He walked around the garage towards the front door with a slight limp. Was that an engine he heard? He walked faster, jumped up the three steps, and turned the doorknob. The door was locked. He knocked, and then pounded on the door. No sound except for that muffled engine.
Panic rose up like bile in his throat. Holy shit. Where were Sandy and the boys?
Carl ran back to the front of the house and put his ear against the garage door. He definitely heard an engine. He tried to lift the garage door, but it was locked. He was pounding on the garage now, shouting for Sandy, Ross, and Ben.
The hammer was in his hand now. How did it get there? Carl felt like he was floating. The hammer floated to its contact point with the garage door handle. The handle floated across the lawn. His fingernails floated down to the crack between metal and concrete where they scratched hard enough to bleed to make the crack wider. The garage door floated up above his head, then time gained weight and what floated crashed to the garage floor where Sandy lay by the open backseat door of the Buick.
Oh my God, oh my God, no!
She was holding Rossy, just 3 years old. She had managed to unbuckle his carseat before the fumes overcame her. Ben, 18 months old, sat in his carseat beside Ross. He appeared to be peacefully napping.
With a sob, Carl lunged over Sandy and Ross for the ignition. He turned the ’67 Buick off, and then staggered back out to the fresh air as the fumes hit him. Furiously, he wiped the tears from his eyes and dove back into the garage. He lifted Sandy, Ross, and Ben one by one and carried them gently to the lawn. The neighbor Paul Hartley found him there rocking Ben, stroking Sandy’s hair, and talking softly to them many heavy minutes later.
Carl floored the truck when he reached the westbound on-ramp. His jaw was tight until the windows started to rattle and the steering wheel vibrated which indicated that he had reached cruising speed. Goddamn odometer wasn’t working for shit. Neither was the fuel gauge. He hoped he would remember that. Gradually, his jaw relaxed.
He had locked the garage door when he left that morning. His only intention was to keep them safe. Maybe one more lock would keep that which was most precious to him from harm. The irony of it roared in his head like a cacophony of bells. She must have started the car early to warm it up for the boys. When she brought them out moments later, the inside door locked behind her somehow. When had she discovered that the garage door was locked? What were her last thoughts as she succumbed to the sleepiness? Carl prayed that her ordeal hadn’t lasted long. Thoughts of this made him clench the steering wheel along with his jaw.
Well, that was all receding now. After the funeral, he had packed his duffel and walked out of the house where they had lived and loved for only 4 short years. Carl was 25. He did not intend to return. He told his brother so. Greg did not seem to believe him, even though he had taken the housekey and the assurance that the contents of the house were all his.
“OK Carl, whatever you say. It will be here for you when you get back.”
“I ain’t goin’ back,” Carl said fiercely to the dashboard.
He wandered through the West Coast cities of the 70’s. Drawn to the edge, he quickly discovered smack. The instant relief was irresistible. Mountains of pain would dissolve into a colorful haze. When he was high, he played audience to his life, and he followed his bliss from L.A. to Seattle. Until the jones got painful, more painful than the pain. He ended up in Missoula somehow, broke and weary. A rancher took pity on him and offered him a place to stay and a job if he would kick. Given the relative difficulty of scoring in a strange town and a strong dose of ignorance about what he was getting himself into, Carl chose to kick. And kick he did, with the help of methadone, and a lot more horses for company than people.
Carl rediscovered his childhood love of riding when it became necessary to occupy his mind and body during the excruciating withdrawal pains. Everything seemed dull and achy. He sweated buckets in his body’s attempt to rid itself of the poison that ran like fire through his veins. Lights were too bright and sounds were too loud. He could not sleep as his mind raced along, so he worked in the barn until dark, then watched TV all night, with the volume turned up as high as it could go to drown out the thoughts of a fix. The rancher tended to his own family and mostly left Carl alone in the bunkhouse, which spared him the embarrassment of a witness to the ugliness in him. He broke every dish in the bunkhouse instead of raging at his employer. If he had had a car, he would have escaped back to his old life, but the rancher guarded his truck keys closely. He would only drive Carl into town weekly to see his counselor and pick up his methadone. Gradually, the white bitch loosened her hold on him. He found he could get by on the methadone, and then he had to kick that. Greg visited as much as he could, and took him back to Utah for family gatherings whenever Carl would consent.
As the painful months dragged by, Carl’s horsemanship improved, and he was soon breaking horses to ride and drive. He found a kind of peace in the mountains, with country folk and country animals that had eluded him in the cities. He remembered their charm from his Utah youth. Once he mastered the challenges of horse training, he sought the thrills of bronc busting on the rodeo circuit, and the gypsy cowboy was born.
The gypsy cowboy made many friends and had a few lovers along the way. Loud and shiny ladies who didn’t seem to care much if he rambled, as long as he made them feel like The Only One when he was in town. It was good to have them around as his tally of broken bones mounted and he required more recuperation space than he wanted to take from Greg. He saw himself as a cross between the Eagles’ “Desperado” and Gregg Allman’s “I’m No Angel,” but some of the ladies saw him as a user. He never told even one of them about Sandy and the boys. He kept them a tight black secret locked in his heart. Only Greg knew they were there, so he preferred not to see Greg. He didn’t like seeing their reflection in Greg’s eyes. He wasn’t quite the Desperado he wished he was, but the booze lubricated his life enough that he could slide through sticky emotional entanglements without them taking too much of a toll on his conscience. It was so much easier that way. No one was or would ever be Sandy, after all. Even though it occurred to him over the years that he had only known her before life beat her down. She could be a totally different person now if she had lived, but her memory stayed golden.
Carl could be funny and kind, “quite the charmer,” he was told. He leaned on whiskey and beer before the rodeos to bolster his courage, and after the shows to nurse his wounds or to celebrate his winnings. Booze was easier to get and to walk away from than heroin, at least in the moment, and it dulled the pain nearly as much. Wherever he went, Carl always knew where he could find a fix. It was an ESP that would never leave him, but he used the sense to avoid the smack now. He didn’t want to suffer through withdrawals again. He grew a twirly mustache that matched his hatband. His eyes sparkled more often over the years, especially when he danced. He did love the honky-tonks, with their whiskey and women and Waylon.
Eventually his bones ached so that he dreaded climbing on the broncs. He stayed on the circuit for the fun of it as long as he could, even though he didn’t ride in every show anymore. Then he started taking longer and longer breaks, working for friends doing horse training or carpentry or odds and ends. He generally did for others and expected that they would do for him. Most of the time this was so. Carl could pick a friend as well as he could be one when his loyalties were not divided by the smack. He never slept on the street, just maybe in his car a time or two. He tended to camp out in the summers because he could. And it was during one of those camping summers that one of his wealthier friends, Dave, who had hired him to work on his house, asked him to take a trip to the Thai islands with him. Dave was going through a divorce and needed a change of scenery and a companion to share the experience. Carl jumped at the rare chance of an exotic vacation, not even thinking about the heroin-Thailand connection.
The pig’s grunts were louder than usual. Maggie couldn’t recall ever noticing the pig at all until that steamy morning. The bungalow wasn’t even hot yet which meant it was at least before 9. This was on the sunset beach of Haadrin, which Maggie believed provided more morning shade than one got on the sunrise beach behind them. This had never been proven, because no one she knew here was alert before 11. The Thai voices that mingled with the grunts weaving in and out of her dreams seemed to be excited … argumentative… What the hell? A repetitive slapping sound, more arguing, grunts getting louder and louder and then SQUEEEEEAAALLLL!!!
Maggie and Lars sat straight up in their sweaty, sandy sheets in terror. It sounded like a woman being murdered, and it went on and on. Why had the gentle Thai couple that managed the bungalows chosen to butcher the pig so early in the day when they knew the guests were still sleeping? Perhaps it was passive-aggressive revenge for Maggie’s ongoing tryst with Lars, obviously not a union blessed by marriage. The lady of the house, Mrs. BoBo, had cold hard eyes for Maggie, thinking her a slut, most likely. Why Lars did not get the same judgment wasn’t much of a mystery. He just sparkled those blue eyes at her and let his rich Danish laughter ring out. “Oh Mrs. Bobo, you are a fine woman! Damn fine woman!” Even if she didn’t understand a word of English, she responded to his Nordic charm and enthusiasm, and stuck stubbornly to her double standard.
Too exhausted and hungover to brave the breakfast cafes yet, or even to go another round, they stuck their heads firmly under the hard pillows in an attempt to drown out the awful noise of the dying pig. Gradually the squeals got weaker, and finally stopped 20 minutes later.
Maggie felt ill this morning. She stepped outside to vomit at least once. Groaning loudly after she stepped on him for the second time clambering across the bed, Lars suggested they go for mocha shakes at the morning café. Ironically, the morning café was on the sunset beach. They also sometimes served Garo Garo, which is basically raw vegetables and a dish of peanut sauce. Ever since Maggie had discovered this Indonesian delight, she just couldn’t get enough of it. They didn’t prepare it every day, but the promise of it was enough to get Maggie down the beach to the café, in spite of her hangover.
No Garo Garo today, but it worked out. Maggie’s resources were dwindling. She knew she would have spent precious baht on food that she probably couldn’t keep down anyway. Lars promised that he could support them both for a while once the deal went down. He was still waiting for Mo, that greasy guy from San Francisco who had offered her a job doing international phone sex while he gave her a “nipple length” hair wrap. Like she would even look at him when Lars was around. Anyway, Mo had been off on his mission for at least a week.
An hour later, they were lazing on the beach with their friends. Maggie lived in her bathing suit, at least the bottoms. She was getting less shy about taking off her top; not normal behavior in Denver. It helped that the Dutch girls were so natural about it. Sometimes they would drink Mekong whiskey and coke in the sun to cool off, but not today. Today was a day for bobbing in the clear green surf when the temperature got too high. Maggie and Lars snuck back to the bungalow in the afternoon for a quickie before volleyball. Camilla and Roger probably did too. Lars had enough for a snort, promising he could get more for the chillum later.
Volleyball was played at 5 p.m., and lasted until nearly dark. People had to get ready for dinner before darkness fell because it was BLACK once the sun went down. Dinner was a leisurely affair, lasting at least 2 hours. What else was there to do until the clubs opened around midnight? Pass the chillum.
A chillum is a hollow wooden bat, 6-12 inches long. It is filled with tobacco, marijuana, heroin, hashish, opium, or any mixture of these. Maggie often didn’t know what mixture she was smoking. She just toked on whatever passed her way. Inevitably, with or without the nod-offs, she would arrive in the dreamy state she craved.
Sometimes they would go to someone’s bungalow to “chase the dragon”, or smoke the heroin off of foil. When she did this, Maggie would vomit immediately the first time, but she always went back for more. Lars always saved her some. He was always looking out for her. Sweet Lars … She probably would have moved on quickly if she hadn’t met him. Or maybe not. The pace of Haadrin suited her, languid, like her life had been in Cherry Creek.
Only not as boring. Maggie wanted for nothing in Denver. Her father was a surgeon, rarely home. Her mother was a socialite and avid tennis player. Around the time that Maggie outgrew her nanny, her mother had twins, Aaron and Angela. Maggie loved them, but the age difference kept her lonely in her family. She craved adventure, beyond expensive summer camps. Around age 14, she enjoyed stealing the family car for joyrides with her friends and smoking pot. Her parents never seemed to notice much of anything she did. Cocaine was easy to get, but after its initial illegal thrill, she found that she didn’t like the jumpy high. She didn’t even like coffee.
Maggie never encountered heroin in high school or her early college years. It was not swank, and her friends were. But when Maggie moved off-campus, near Auraria, there it was. It came to her in the enticing danger of a poet with a long, dark ponytail from the coffee shop where she stopped on her way to class. They discussed poetry and music at first, and then went to his apartment to smoke joints and fuck, and one day he brought out the white powder. At first they just smoked it together. Then she helped him shoot up. By the time she was paying for their supply, she had stopped going to class and paying rent on her apartment. After a time, her parents noticed the drain on her bank account, and after some cajoling and shouting, they cut her off. They did not approve of her poet, and they did not want to pay for an education she wasn’t accessing, but somehow she and the poet survived without their money.
After several more months, her parents seemed to realize that something was desperately wrong, and they begged her to move back home. Around this time, Maggie watched a “friend” O.D. on their couch, and the poet brought another girl home to crash with them. Uncomfortable with this arrangement, Maggie told her parents she would come home if they would give her some money to settle her debts. They sent it to her, and she bought a ticket to Thailand. She had heard stories of the beach life, and the islands sounded much more appealing than cold, dirty Denver. She went to Haadrin to meet a “friend,” and that’s where she met Lars.
Now Mo didn’t show up during the 3-week time-span he had promised. Lars suspected that he was still in Bangkok, squandering their stash with the go-go girls in Patpong. It was too big of an investment to lose. They could not rely on the island supply for long if they had nothing to share in return. Lars decided to go. Economics dictated that Maggie must stay. Quite simply, he had the train fare, and she did not. Lars swore that he would be back in a week’s time. Maggie stomach knotted in fear and grief when he left. Who would look after her? She moved out of Mrs. BoBo’s bungalow and into a cheaper one on the sunrise beach with 2 other girls. One was German, one was Australian. They didn’t spend much time together, but they would share what they had to eat and smoke with Maggie if she timed her appearance right. Maggie hunkered down to wait for her man.
Carl’s fish-belly white legs stood out like beacons on this beach of endless sun. They blinded Maggie when she turned to see who had kicked sand on her as she dozed on her towel. She looked above the legs to a pair of grey trunks, quite a contrast to the Day-Glo banana hammocks that strutted the shore daily. All the way up to his grinning, lined face. He smelled different, faintly of horses. When they made eye contact, it felt like an electric current. Maggie sat up and smiled at him.
Carl was captivated. He dropped into the sand beside Maggie. Dave turned around to see what had happened to Carl, then waved vaguely and kept walking. He hoped to find his own topless 20-year-old beauty.
After several seconds of grinning rather foolishly at each other, Maggie blurted, “Do you play volleyball? You have the legs for it.”
Carl stretched out his long, somewhat bowlegged, legs and said, “These legs can learn to do anything, including following you anywhere, darlin’.”
They laughed, and then the words came out in a rush. Like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years, they attempted to catch up on events in places they had never been with people they had never met. Carl was stunned when he told her about Sandy and the boys several hours into their conversation, which continued as they moved back and forth between the gentle waves and the white sand. He had not spoken of his family to anyone besides his brother in 20 years. Speaking of them animated his memory. It was as if the three of them were sitting beside him on the sand. He shook his head to clear it of that bittersweet notion. Neither Sandy, Ross, nor Ben had ever seen the ocean. He was sure they would love it here in paradise. A lump rose in his throat, and he had a violent urge for a cigarette and something stronger.
Maggie felt the pain behind Carl’s sad story strongly enough to tear up. She grabbed his hand and said, “C’mon. Let’s get a drink before it’s time for volleyball.”
It was as if she had read his mind. Gratefully, he followed her to the closest café where he bought them Mekong whiskies and Cokes. He would have preferred a Coors, but they had no beer except for warm Singha. No thanks. Maggie had pulled a sarong around herself to enter the café, which made it easier to look at her face with her bright brown eyes shining at him, instead of at her chest. He felt a twinge of shame related to their 20-year age difference, but it was clear that Home Rules did not apply here, and he doubted he could resist her if they did.
After the volleyball game, Carl moved out of the bungalow he shared with Dave into his own, and Maggie moved in with him in the dark. They barely discussed it. They spent the first sweaty night wrapped around each other in the candlelit bungalow and a deep peace descended upon them. It was a homecoming, so far away from home.
After another day on the beach, slurping Mekong and coke, Maggie made arrangements to fill her chillum, now that they had Carl’s money. He did not hesitate to chase the dragon into familiar oblivion, and they lazed in the bungalow endlessly, it seemed. Smoking and sweating, laughing and kissing. They never wanted to leave. Eventually, Dave moved on. But, Carl stayed with Maggie. There was no sign of Lars.
The jolt came when they ran out of money. While they stayed in the bungalow on credit, Maggie called her parents and asked for airfare home. They agreed, but wanted her to pick up her ticket at the airport in Bangkok. Maggie convinced them to wire it to Surat Thani because it was closer to her (and to a mainland supplier). Maggie and Carl took a bullet-boat to shore, picked up the money, replenished their supply, and were back on Haadrin beach within 24 hours. They caught up on their local debts, and slipped back into the island rhythm. It was so easy to do.
And so they whiled away the days in paradise. Green waves, white sand, lemongrass and coconut milk. Their gentle Thai hosts, and building sandmen with the other international guests. Screaming monkeys and flea-infested dogs. Rave music pumping, and a corpse that washed up on shore. Mekong and chillums and sex and sun. All of it thousands of miles away from anything that even resembled “reality”—until the money ran out again.
Maggie heard that Thailand was tired of the foreign junkies who were too broke to go home. Throwing them in jail did not make economic sense in the long run. There was a program that paid their airfare home in order to get rid of them. But the thought of that one-way ticket was daunting. She tried to get money from her parents again, but they refused. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!” her father said.
The pressure was building. Maggie and Carl were able to skim some of the smack they acquired for the new guests, but there was less of that happening as their credit dwindled. They moved from bungalow to bungalow, but their hosts were becoming more hostile as more bills went unpaid. The only relief now was the at-least daily high and the blissful oblivion to all their troubles that it brought. The gaps between those precious nod-offs crawled by, even in their beach paradise. They began to bicker. Maggie threatened to leave, but knew she could not without surrendering to the repatriation program. She saw that Carl was clueless on how to support them, and she prayed for Lars to return and play the savior.
Then Carl suggested that they return to Bangkok and find jobs as mules. He knew that there were dealers who would pay good money to American passport holders to transport heroin between countries. A favorite route was Thailand to India and back. Maggie didn’t even blanch at the idea of sticking balloons full of heroin into her orifices once she heard that women got paid more because they had more orifices. Not even the threat of instant death if a balloon burst inside her was a deterrent. She urged Carl to depart for Bangkok right away.
They slipped away quietly on a fast, smooth, silver bullet boat to the mainland, leaving their debts behind, knowing they could never return to their paradise. They huddled together in the cool morning wind, whispering about plans and contacts ahead of them in the massive city. Carl could tell that Maggie believed in him again, and this gave him confidence, which increased her trust in him even more. Carl had a name and an address in Bangkok, and that was about it.
When they found the elusive “Ken” in Bangkok, the short, skinny Thai man looked at them critically, then barked, “This ga-earl no look good for plane. Too dirty. Too stinky. Police take her away and find balloons. No good!”
Maggie did not mind the insults as much as she minded the thought of a delay to her fix. What was she supposed to do while Carl made the trip to India and back? They went back to their cheap room, and Carl held her, soothed her. They went out and scored, and after their bliss faded, Carl prepared to meet Ken and head to the airport. He left her some stash, and instructed her to make it last until he returned about 48 hours later. After a shower of sorts and a long kiss, he was gone.
Maggie tried to sleep. She did not want to leave the room. She had no money or food, but at least she wasn’t hungry. She tossed and turned. She waited as long as she could to smoke, but fear that Carl might not come back drove her to the foil. She lost track of time. There were no windows. Night sounds from the street were indistinguishable from the day sounds. She smoked her last foil. Panic set in. Where was he? In some filthy holding cell? Or had a balloon burst? How long should she wait? Finally, she took some furtive steps out into the night, and then headed toward the bright lights at the end of the street.
When Carl came back to the room, she was gone. She had left her few belongings behind. Flush with cash, Carl paid for a week in the room and settled in to wait. As the days passed, his despair grew. He tried not to smoke all the stash. He tried to save some for Maggie, or was it Sandy? Wait, Sandy had never touched the stuff. She never would. But Maggie loved him. Especially when he took care of her. He cursed himself for leaving her, even briefly. He cursed Ken for not letting her go with him on the India run. He fantasized about bathing her, putting some make-up on her sallow face, making her presentable enough to avoid suspicion on the plane. She was so charming when she smiled. He remembered that first day on the beach. He reached for the foil from his Krung-Thep cigarette pack. If he couldn’t get back to Maggie, he could at least escape. At least for a while.