Sprawled across the side entryway to Beth Israel Congregation, I roll onto my side and wipe a palmful of dew off my clammy face. Everything about this morning is brittle, cold and still. Suspended in limbo, I’m drained from squirming all night on the slick ground like a caterpillar in a cocoon. As first light swirls around me and creeps into the shadows, I’m in no rush to greet it—there’s no point jump-starting the engines until the street dealers kick off their rounds. Having suffered through too many of Portland’s sunrises in recent years, the art on the horizon has either lost its beauty or I’m too jaded to see in color anymore. 

Peeling my head away from an uncomfortable makeshift pillow made of rolled-up sweatpants, I see that both Simon and the surrounding streets are sleeping in. We’re nestled in darkness, lit only by the headlights of an occasional car that turns down Flanders Street. My sleeping bag is bunched under my hip to help relieve the pressure from the cold stone beneath me, but it’s not the only reason I had a hard time sleeping last night. 

A few hours ago, I woke up to the alarm of Simon snoring and rattling away in his sleep—it was an eerie and guttural sound like an empty spray-paint can being shaken. I was still fighting to fall back asleep, long after his sputtering faded and drifted away with the breeze. So, while he put another day behind him, I was reminded that long nights take a toll and this life never pays.

We both went to sleep with full bellies and a shot, so we’re fortunate that neither one of us will be dope sick. It’s nice to catch a break now and then and wake up without wishing I would die already. But it’s never enough—I’m still skeptical about how hard Simon crashed out and wonder if he’s holding out on me. Though if I were in his shoes, there’s no doubt I’d do the same. Riding high comes naturally in a free-for-all where everyone looks out for themselves. We all have it—a grizzly survival instinct to take what we can, when we can and figure tomorrow out if it comes. 

This isn’t our land, but we periodically come here to stake a claim in the covered alcove guarding the ornate entryway. If unoccupied, I prefer this location because it’s a reasonably safe place to hang my boots. Not only is there protection overhead from the frequent rain that tends to ruin a good night’s sleep, but it’s also set back from the street enough that being noticed, roused and moved by the police is a rarity. 

The groundskeeper here is a man of quiet compassion. It isn’t in him to run us off outside of business hours, and he refuses to call the police on us. For the most part, we are often gone before he would have to step over our bodies to open the temple doors. Scattering like roaches, we are sent packing by an internal alarm that forces us to get up at first light and attend to our bad habits.

Simon is still asleep. He’s had it easy after spending all day yesterday collecting free doses from every street dealer he could pin down. This is common for any junkie recently released from a stint in jail. Any time after I’ve been arrested, all I have to do is show one of my dealers my booking paperwork and they’ll set me right. A freebie from them is a cheap investment in their own job security, reigniting the habit that was broken by an unpleasant jailhouse detox. Our dealers also need us back up and running again, racking up goods and on our best game. It’s no secret that a dope sick junkie is unprofitable.

I pull myself together and pack with purpose, grabbing the dope kit I stashed in a tree nearby and then my shredded shoes that I left out to dry. I often struggle to tell whether my insoles are wet or merely cold, but when water oozes out of my shoelaces as I double-knot them, I take note that at some point today I need to steal fresh socks. 

“Time to go,” I call out. 

Simon, in one of the few ways that he is needy, often depends on me rousing him. He’s never been a morning person and is still sound asleep, his face buried in his sleeping bag. 

“Come on, get up.” I spin in place and scan the ground to make sure I’m not forgetting anything. Eager to start the day, I nudge him with my toe a bit harder than I intended to. 

When that doesn’t wake him, I reach down to shake his shoulder and feel an unnatural resistance. Something, everything, is wrong. His whole body feels stiff, and as I pull harder, Simon keels over, his rigid limbs creaking out loud like a weathered deck. There is lividity in his face—his nose is dark purple and filled with puddled blood. A pair of lifeless, open eyes stare through me and into nothingness. Instinctively, my hand snaps back and Simon sinks away.

I stumble back and try to make sense of my surroundings. Nobody is around yet, but soon, the world will rise.

“No, no, no.” I lose control of the volume of my voice and squeeze my throat. “Don’t be dead, please, don’t do this to me,” I chant as I drop to my knees, pleading over his corpse. 

My hands hover over him as if trying to draw warmth from a smothered fire. I desperately grasp for a way to fix this. My heart is racing as though I just sent a speedball its way, but the surge doesn’t stop. A decision needs to be made, and fast, but before I can make sense of anything, a wisp of breath rolls down my collar and an invisible hand clutches my cheeks, forcing me to stare down death. 

I snap the clearest picture in my mind and my eyes sting. Even though I know a lot of junkies who walk these streets with no life left in them, this is the first dead body I’ve ever seen. Looking down at Simon, I finally understand how pathetic this existence is and how lonely this life will always be. I see nothing beyond this moment for Simon, other than being hauled away like trash on the curb. We are forever trapped here, alone and useless, likely remembered only for our crimes, selfishness and former selves. Heaven is out of the picture, and because of that, I am okay with what I have to do next. I know the act is irreversible and unforgivable, but then again, if God has abandoned us, he’s not around to judge me.

Dropping my sleeping bag onto the ground, I slide my backpack off my shoulders and let it fall like a hammer. I kneel over Simon’s body, steal one last look around and wince as I rummage through the front pocket of his jeans. I know he always keeps a wake-up hit on him. His pocket is tight and fights my hand as I dip into them. My fingers scratch around but keep coming up empty-handed. Time is running out and traffic is increasing. 

I reach into his back pocket and soon realize the dope isn’t in his wallet either. The longer I search, the more determined I am, but I can’t bring myself to roll him over and disturb him further. By the time I give up, I sit back on my heels. I can’t believe what I’ve become. 

“I’m so sorry, Simon.”

Please stop looking at me. I can’t take it. Pulling my sweater cuff over my palm, I reach out with a shaky hand to close his eyes. My hand gets close, then backs off as I turn my head away to exhale. When my hand reaches forward once again, my palm lands on his face but fails to brush his frozen eyelids closed.Backing away, I grab my belongings and shrink into the distance.

Excerpted from One Hit Away: A Memoir of Recovery by Jordan Barnes. Available at Amazon.

By: Jordan Barnes
Title: One Hit Away: A Memoir of Recovery
Sourced From: www.thefix.com/one-hit-away-memoir-recovery
Published Date: Wed, 23 Sep 2020 07:28:35 +0000

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