I am in a barn-red house on a hill. In my room there is a bookshelf, a desk for me to write at, a soft bed covered by a blue quilt, a wooden crucifix on the wall that opens to reveal the items necessary for administering last rites. Where I am now, there are peacocks, a rust-colored mule named Lulu, and hundred-foot-tall pine trees. Where I am now, I have my own bedroom.
Here are some of the places I slept last year: Under a bush in front of a high school in Evansville, Indiana. In the stairwell of an apartment building in St. Louis, Missouri. In a car-wash stall in Kentucky. In an open field behind a McDonald’s in Illinois. In a booth at that same McDonald’s. In a laundromat. In the backseat of an abandoned car. In a stranger’s garage. In a chair at the public library. In a toolshed. In a burned-out mobile home. In a drug dealer’s backyard. On a drug dealer’s living room floor. On a drug dealer’s couch. In a drug dealer’s bed. On more than one occasion I’ve woken up on a total stranger’s front porch with no memory of how I got there.
Last year, I was arrested three times for possession of methamphetamine, charged each time with having a single loaded syringe in my pocket. In Illinois, any paraphernalia containing residue of a controlled substance is considered possession, a Class III felony, carrying a sentence of two to five years in prison. The last time I was arrested I spent over six months in jail before my grandmother agreed to post bond. The rest of my family would hardly speak to me. I have yet to be tried.
Nine years ago, I had just finished a master’s degree in writing at Washington University in St. Louis, was awarded a postgraduate fellowship, and had my very first short story published in Granta magazine. It was the tale of a young addict jailed on drug charges, titled “Here Is What You Do.” When I wrote the story, I had never been to jail. I had never injected drugs. I was clean, working as a college instructor, taking care of my son, spending a few hours every day working on other stories I wanted to include in the manuscript I was about to send to agents.
I grew up queer and Pentecostal, loving Dolly Parton and the public library, in the housing projects of Eldorado, Illinois, a town with a population under four thousand. At fourteen, I ran away from home. At seventeen, I met the mother of my son. I was still a teenager when he was born. I was a high school dropout with a GED, and then I was the first person in my family to go to college. My life during and after grad school was a pipe dream, an anomaly, something I’d worked unbelievably hard for but still felt I did not deserve. For the first time in my adult life, I had health insurance, was in therapy, and earned enough to survive.
Once, during my time as an undergraduate, a doctor had prescribed me hydrocodone—for pleurisy, of all things. The condition caused a stabbing pain in my right lung each time I took a breath, and I stayed on pain medication for almost a year. I had no understanding of its long-term effects, of how addictive it was or what was waiting for me when I finally stopped taking it. What I knew, above all else, was that when I took painkillers I felt good, really good. They annihilated the undulating sadness I’d been navigating since childhood. I had never felt the weight of my own depression until I had an opportunity to exist without it. But when I went on a four-day vacation with my son to Tennessee, without any pain pills, I experienced severe withdrawals for the first time. I didn’t know what was happening. I went to the ER, believing that I was having a heart attack. It was over a year before I started to feel like myself again. I spent the next decade completely sober, hardly even consuming alcohol.
Then the fellowship ended, and adjunct teaching was no longer sustainable. I had to suppress a small amount of doom before returning to my hometown. I had a few friends there, and my family. I moved into a house two blocks from my son’s mother, still one of my dearest friends, and eventually found a job teaching GED classes at the same institution where I’d received mine fifteen years earlier. At first, I felt very fortunate to teach the class. I was able to understand the dilemma of the dropout, to relate to the student whom compulsory public education had failed.
Eldorado consists of a few gas stations, a pizza parlor, a main street lined with abandoned storefronts built during the last century, a single grocery store, and sixteen churches. The town is possibly one of the most spiritually and intellectually bankrupt places on earth, and the inordinate number of religious organizations might seem ironic. But consider the ancient hunger the people here possess, a longing for a life other than the one they are living, so that each new church symbolizes another attempt in an endless reach for salvation. The largest employer in the area is the Peabody Coal Company. Research that sought to investigate uncommonly high levels of disease and cancers in Southern Illinois initially assumed a connection to mining pollution, but found instead that most people living here simply “lacked genetic diversity.” The obvious implications are slightly uncomfortable, but the most basic fact of it is: the same families have lived here forever—no one new comes in. The entire area was once a prehistoric swamp, eventually populated in the early eighteenth century by people migrating north from Appalachia.
The poverty and isolation I returned to—the working-class dystopia, the rolling swaths of lonely wilderness—at first felt like the exact kind of strange, off-kilter environment I needed to finish my book. I thought I was standing in just the right spot, calibrating fair measures of empathy and objectivity to describe what I saw. I thought it was important to say what this place looks and feels like, to draw the peculiar experience of living in a deteriorating coal town. It seemed to reveal something crucial about living and dying in America. But like most U.S. communities in the last fifty years, where industry and religion and intellectualism failed, drugs flood in to soak up the empty space. I wrote eight stories after moving home. I searched until I found the perfect agent, one with the uncanny ability to understand exactly what my aim was. He helped me revise the entire manuscript multiple times, and then he sent it out. But in the two years it took to find a publisher, I stopped observing the place where I was living and became it.
My entire life, there had been days when a sourceless sense of dread became so formidable I couldn’t leave the house. I would avoid messages from friends, or calls from my family. Usually the depression passed, lifting with the same mysterious expediency with which it had descended. I would go back to my routines, to writing, to being a parent, a friend, an employee. The thought of using again rarely, if ever, crossed my mind, until I moved back home. While my agent searched for a publisher, I thought compulsively about death. I was still working, forcing myself to behave as if I weren’t also constantly wondering what it might be like to not exist, until, leaving work one night, walking down the long flight of steps to the parking lot during an ice storm, I slipped and cracked my tailbone. A few days later I went to the doctor, who gave me Vicodin. It was the excuse I needed to slip into a total emotional blackout. In a matter of months, I was taking so many pills that I would deplete a thirty-day prescription in under a week. I maintained my habit by buying them off the street. It took no time at all before I knew at least four other people with prescriptions, all willing to sell them for cash.
In less than a year, I was shooting OxyContin, heroin, and then finally meth, because it was cheaper and opiates were no longer enough. My roommate kicked me out, and I took it as an opportunity to disappear completely. This is the part where it gets confusing, where I have to hover over myself in order to tell the story. I can’t quite ascend high enough to gain insight into my own behavior, because I’m tethered to the horror of it, and it keeps pulling me back down, into an abyss black with regret. The first time I was arrested, I was walking down the street at 3 A.M. A police officer stopped me, and assuming that I was high, searched my backpack. I bonded out. A few months later, a friend came out to her car in the morning and found me unconscious in the front seat. She called 911. The paramedics finally woke me up, but a cop was standing by to search me. I was arrested for possession again. Then once more a few months later.
There’s a timeline to this, but I can’t get it right yet. I wrote a book. I moved home. I was depressed. I started using drugs. I was arrested. I went to jail. I edited parts of that book while in jail. I’d devoted ten years of my life to writing the book, and then, just before it was about to finally arrive, this thing I had worked so hard to build, I burned my life to the foundation. Why? I wrote a book. I became addicted to meth. I was shooting meth every day. In the bathroom at Walmart. In the bathroom at McDonald’s. In a parked car on a gravel road. In a dozen motel rooms with people I hardly knew. In vacant lots. In abandoned buildings. In strange living rooms in towns I’d never been to before. I was arrested three times in under a year, cut off entirely from all my friends and family, my own son, the people I loved most in the world, and I still just kept shooting meth.
When I was high I thought obsessively about time dilation, as if I were always on the verge of visualizing some aspect of special relativity that I hadn’t been able to before. I thought obsessively about a lot of things. During active addiction I would go without sleep for weeks, drifting off for hours or minutes each day, dangerously balanced between consciousness and unconsciousness, unable to tell the difference between what was reality and what was the product of a waking dream. I felt like I had slipped into the space below reality. I’d awake in a motel room days later, not entirely sure of what I’d done there. Months passed, and then years. The people I loved were getting married, having children, moving to other cities, going to funerals, working through the light and darkness of their own lives, and I was essentially the same thing I had been since the first moment I got high. There seemed a marked difference in the elapsed time I had observed, and the way the rest of the world had observed it. We were no longer relative to one another, by velocity or gravity, it didn’t exactly matter. What seemed like a single prolonged moment for me had been two years back on Earth.
The last time I went to jail, I stayed long enough to get completely sober, to form rational thoughts again. I began to understand that substance abuse had only erased me for a brief period, and that everything I’d tried to obliterate with drugs was still intact, right in the spot where I’d left it. I’d written about jail in my short story decades earlier, and the actual experience of it was only somewhat different. There are no windows. The recreation area is merely a cell without a ceiling. There is a lot of violence. Ninety percent of the inmates are addicts. Fights break out regularly. I watched a man get beaten by three correctional officers because he’d asked to use the phone too many times. I watched an emaciated nineteen-year-old boy get tased seven times because he wouldn’t willingly go back into an isolation cell, where he’d already been for three months. Like the protagonist of my story, I was too sensitive, too naive, too unsure of myself, too passive, too gay, unable to tell when my cellmates were angry or joking, or if there was even a distinction, if they were propositioning me or making fun of me. I was surprised that I’d understood so much about a situation I’d never been in, and that what I’d understood above all else, was that I couldn’t understand it. Like the character in my story, I worried that being educated had stripped me of some primal instinct necessary to survive in jail, that I did not know how to interact with aggressive heteronormative men. It was a language I had never really learned anyway. I could translate it, but I couldn’t speak it. As the days went by, the very idea of punishment, of using incarceration to exact justice, grew more and more absurd. The majority of the inmates had been there before, had been in prison at least once, for similar convictions. How had it served us? The penalty for our drug use, and crimes we’d committed as addicts, was extended confinement in close quarters with other addicts. I thought about the terrible mistakes I had made every single day. I obsessed over them. They were what had led me here, to the worst place I have ever been. I would have chosen sleeping in a ditch, or backyard, under a bush, in a burned-out mobile home, in an open field, any day of the week, over jail. Luckily, though, I didn’t have to choose. For the first time in years I’d begun to feel that those weren’t the only options. In a letter from jail to my friend Amy Baily I wrote, “I’ve made a lot of bad decisions and hurt the people I love, but I feel ready to begin the long, difficult road to the hill where there’s a path that leads to a cliff that if you climb down many feet there’s a cave that goes for several miles beneath a nearby river that eventually comes out in a neighboring state where one is allowed to submit paperwork at a tiny glass window in the side of a tree that is also an office for The Department of Forgiveness.”
My book Here Is What You Do was published by Soho Press in June, 2019. I recently reread the title story, the one about a young addict jailed on drug charges. I felt awash in recognition, as with any song or movie or story that renders an aspect of your life so accurately you feel blindsided by a sudden reversal of loneliness, because someone has articulated something crucial that up until that point had gone unnamed. Except that someone was me. I wrote it about myself, before it had ever happened.
At the end of that story the protagonist is released, and finds himself faced with the danger and uncertainty of being a free person. After my grandmother posted bond in April, I had the same strange dilemma: how to readjust to the danger of my own freedom. A dear friend offered to let me stay in her home in the country. I’ve been here ever since, attending treatment and court hearings.
Where I am now, in this barn-red house on a hill, there are peacocks whose night-calls sound like a person yelling for help, a rust-colored mule named Lulu, hundred-foot-tall pine trees, and a creek that renders the road impassable after heavy rains. Where I am now, in this barn-red house on a hill, I have my own bedroom.
Chris Dennis is the author of the short story collection Here Is What You Do. He holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Washington University in St. Louis, where he also received a postgraduate fellowship. His work has appeared in Granta, McSweeney’s, Literary Hub, and West Branch.
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