A Junkie’s Christmas

Okay, you’re right. I am sitting by a pool in the sub-tropical Florida sun, not too far from West Palm Beach, and it is the middle of August, so hot that just lifting a drink makes you sweat. But this is, I assure you, a story about Christmas.

I was thinking of calling it “How the Drag Queen Stole / Saved (?) Christmas,” but settled on the simpler “A Junkie’s Christmas.” Oh, you never thought a junkie would care about Christmas? Well, you wouldn’t think it to read the newspapers and all, but I’m here to tell you they do. I assure you they do.

Of course, what they want out of it is a little different than most folks. They’re not thinking about a Christmas bonus. Or a new music player (unless they think they can sell it). Or a snow blower. Or a cashmere sweater. But they are thinking about staying warm. Which is to say, they’re thinking primarily about dope. Of course, you might say this is a different kind of Christmas story. No angels. No stars. No wise men. Too depressing. But you’d be wrong.

Okay, let’s start: how about $20.72?

Rockets Redglare as Santa, photograph by James Marshall

Rockets Redglare as Santa, photograph by James Marshall

That’s right, you wake up on Christmas Eve and you’ve got $20.72. It’s a problem. Even if you find two good $10 bags, they’d barely get you to midnight. And 72¢ wouldn’t even get you on the subway out to visit your family in Richmond Hill, which is not exactly appropriately named because there are no rich men and you never did see a hill. But you have to go there anyway, and it’s a buck and a quarter to get on the train. And there’s no way you’re gonna hang out in front of the station grubbing for change on Christmas Eve, because there are still things you won’t do.

So you get up early, work your way against traffic and swerve left, north of Wall Street, and find yourself in the park, where you can generally score some methadone from the regs. Since that last touch of pride prevents you from going on the program (if you can’t make it as a junkie, what does that say?), your tolerance isn’t that high. So that grainy orange juice—say, 60 mgs or so—undiluted by water or spit might keep you in a womb of security for 48 hours, because the half-life of that stuff is so damn good. Maybe not high, but definitely dry.

But it’s damn hard to write about this because of that glare off the damn pool, and the sweaty suntan lotion keeps leaking down into my eyes. At least let me introduce you to the regs.

Hopefully you’ll see Danny. Danny’s been on methadone longer than just about anyone else. Nabbed under the Rockefeller laws. Possession. Armed robbery. 19 years old. Sick in the cell. He gets the option to try out this pilot program, out in three to five. So they guinea pig him. Oh, yeah, that first day is good. And they just keep upping his dose. But methadone’s got no limit; your body just keeps getting into it. By the time they’re done with him, he’s up to 180 mgs a day. So when they cut him loose and cut him back down to 90, the maximum daily allowance on the program, it keeps him on a permanent edge. But no one wants to be sick on Christmas. So even though you do find Danny, he’s not giving his up. He tells you that he doubles up on Christmas, and with that 180 mgs he gets to feel good one day a year, his Christmas present to himself.

Frankie will usually sell a bottle. He’s a little stunad, that’s true, but smart enough to shoot some speed before he went to the program the first day. They sit him in a little room and dose him, observing for any signs of narcosis—closing your eyes, or slurring your speech. But Frankie keeps rambling: “10 mgs…another 10 mgs…another 10 mgs…” It’s like they’re feeding him cups of coffee, the way junkies like it, light and sweet.

Now as I was saying, he’ll usually sell a bottle, especially at Christmas. Needs to buy his mother and sister some presents, right? But this year he’s leaving the city, going out to N.J. to spend Christmas with his aunt and cousins. Leaving the state is getting him nervous; he’s never been so far from Delancey Street, so he’s hanging on to his.

Jane is there, as usual. But her teeth, which have been rotting, are killing her. She had a few taken out last week so she could get a script for Percodan, but the dentist turned out to be a quack, and no one would fill it. Plus her bad knee is torn up again from slipping on that patch of ice in front of the bodega where she was going to get Shorty a pack of Kools. All that ragged pain is making her hold on to it.

So you’re walking around and that New York wind is making your spine feel like little electric icicles are shooting out of it. Every time you sweat, it freezes on your skin and then melts again, forming a dirty film of slush. You choke on your puke on every block and push on to the donut shop while every broken speaker between Stanton and Delancey is blasting out Feliz Navidad, which is making your head hurt.

You duck into the donut shop on Delancey, pull out 47¢ from the 72¢, and invest it in a cup of coffee. A black woman comes in and sits. She’s wearing a mini skirt, showing off long legs in stockings, and her perfect tits are looming out of her blouse. You know she’s not feeling any pain. But looking at her makes you rise, till a blanket of nausea pulls you down.

“Pass the sugar, sugar,” she says. She picks up the bottle, holds it over her coffer, and lets it hang there, for about 30 seconds, until the coffee spills over the side of the cup into the saucer.

“Baby, you’re looking a little pekid. You about to fall offa that chair.”

If you weren’t so sick, you’d lean over and suck on those tits, till you realize how big her hands are. Still, those tits are making you lightheaded.

“What do you need, child? Cause I know your ass need something. Got all the gifts a young boy need. Incense, frankincense, Methadent, Methadone. You name it, sugar.”

You spoon your coffee into your mouth because your hands are shaking too bad to lift the cup. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon on X-mas Eve. The good places have all sold out, the rip-off artists abound, so you got to make this $20 count. Because you know by 6:00, your legs’ll freeze up and you’ll be immobilized, gridlocked as the traffic at Rockefeller Center; as fucked as a dead pigeon.

“I got a bottle,” she says. “60 mgs. Straight up.”

“How much?” She says $30, which is the going price, but remember: you only got $20. And you still got to get out to Queens. You inform her of this.

“Well, you know, I’m not about being a rip-off artist, baby. This stuff is still warm. Watch it settle.” She puts her hand in her blouse, pulls out a small brown paper bag tied with a rubber band, and removes the bottle. Pale and beautiful orange, a tropical sunset. She shakes it and holds it low and you watch the powder slowly settle to the bottom, just like it’s supposed to, a good half-inch. Nice and slow, like one of those glass bubbles with a scene from the Nativity, the snowflakes falling like Bethlehem in the Catskills. You hope that she’s telling you the truth, but the whole idea of truth is as murky as slush piled up against a curb. You lay two fingers on the bottle, and it is warm, but you don’t know if that means she’s come straight from the program or if it just got that way from being stuck between those silicon tits, or if it’s just Tang that’s been sitting on a radiator for two days.

“Well, it is Christmas,” she says. She asks for an empty paper coffee cup, walks to the bathroom, and comes back about three minutes later. She holds the cup out. “Drink.”

You taste it. You don’t know anymore. She could have gone in the bathroom and peed in the cup, for all you know. There’s no way to tell. So you throw the liquid back down your throat and finish it with some lukewarm, sweet coffee. An act of desperation? An act of faith? You slip her the 20 bucks. She looks across the counter at the P.R. who’s working.

“Angel, hand me one of those glazed bowties.” He hands it to her on a paper plate and she pushes it over to you. “Now Angel, give me my boyfriend’s check.” She leans over and runs her hands across your thighs, which makes you shiver.

“Don’t be scared, baby, there’s enough tricks out there on X-mas Eve, with all them truck drivers ready to lay a little Christmas bonus on me.”

So you watch as she goes to the counter and pays Angel for your coffee and donut with what was, as of late, your twenty. She walks back over and drops you a five, which floats like a dirty green snowflake down to the counter. “Christmas Eve Special,” she says. “Trees and methadone half price. Buy yourself a scarf; you’re gonna freeze to death.” Advice from a wise man. You might take it. You watch those mini-skirted legs slink out the door.

Okay, there’s one thing I forgot to mention. Must be this damn sun cookin’ up my brain.

Methadone may last a long time, but it takes a long time to come on: forty minutes, at least, for that warm feeling to hit your gut. No instant rush. And you better believe those forty minutes feel like forty days when you’re struggling home. If you got burnt, you want to be home when you realize it. You know you wouldn’t even have the strength to bash in the head of that fucking drag queen whore if, indeed, she turned you into a trick.

So you’re dragging your sorry ass past Ridge Street when you see her getting into the cab of a truck in the shallow of the Willamsburg Bridge. You think you hear her say to the john: “I’m Stella, babe, and I got all the gifts a man could need.” Maybe she sees you and smiles, and maybe you can’t see straight anymore. At any rate, it’s too hot down here in Florida to actually write with any degree of accuracy. But since this is a Christmas story, and you’re a junkie, you know how it ends.

An excerpt from the novel “Dime Bag,” by Vincent Zangrillo, to be published by Sensitive Skin in Spring, 2017.