Hudak is missing. He disappeared one day in the middle of English Literature 201, and I haven’t seen him since. But that was four years and two failed colleges ago. For all I know, he might have come back to find I was missing. I can imagine his typically laconic response, remarking on the factual, never failing to infer its attendant insignificance. “Durr is not here,” he would have noted simply.
Perhaps he notices my absence still from time to time. Just as I record his. Maybe he’s waiting for me to return. That would be something. With that rigid, serious and yet somehow unconcerned look he always had, and judgmental as hell. He seemed to notice and record everything, caring not even a little bit about any of it. But the more likely scenario is that he doesn’t even have the slightest memory of me. My absence was, and remains unimportant. I record his as significant because the day he first wasn’t there, was the day after my life started cratering, and it hasn’t stopped yet.
I didn’t actually know Hudak. He was in my class. Then he wasn’t. I made it to the end of the semester. I shouldn’t have wasted my time. Distracted as I was, the results were predictable. I had a full schedule of classes. It looked like I would pull down a 4.0 after the mid-terms. I fell apart soon after, my academic performance following me into the abyss. By contrast, Hudak’s semester ended elegantly. He was just gone; abruptly, cleanly and with a tinge of mystery. I on the other hand was asked to leave, and not politely. The best marks on my semester report card were the two Incompletes. Everything else was giant, nerve jangling Fs.
This was the beginning of my descent into who knows where; but it was nowhere good. It began with my father’s death. I didn’t mourn him. The truth was that he never cared for me. He had always expressed this tacitly. Until he was on his death-bed. Then he got specific. He began by dropping the bomb that I was not his son. He said he always hated me because I looked just like my birth father. I compounded the problem by having what my father regarded as his same personality flaws.
“You’re just like him; a big noise, and no substance. Blue eyes and charm are worthless, if they’re all you’ve got. All of your dreams and plans are just so much hot air and bullshit. They, and you will never amount to anything. That’s called failure, and it’s all you’ll ever be.”
“I’m only nineteen. I’ve never failed at anything. How can you say this?”
“Because I can see it clearly. Your life to this point speaks volumes. Adequate grades, but never great; you’re too cool to study. Your bullshit part-time jobs; you do enough to keep getting paid, but never enough to prosper or excel. Even your athletic career is a joke. Good enough to make every team, you’re just happy with getting a jersey. You won’t do the work to be special. You’re jerking your whole life off. When you leave the protection of the cocoon of school and your mother’s indulgence, you’re in for a fall. It’s gonna hurt when you crash. I’m just sorry I won’t live to see it.”
He died later that night. I had never cared about his opinion before. I don’t know why I did now. His insistence on my lack of worth started wearing on me. I began examining my life, actually finding examples to validate his assessment. The problem with self-worth is its fragility. The moment you start to question it, it’s gone. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Everything becomes further evidence to its questionable truth. Until it isn’t questionable anymore.
Margaret Rose O’Connor was the anvil in lieu of a parachute handed to a plummeting man. I loved her, more than I ever loved myself. She made me believe I could be something solid, reliable; noble even. Maggie said she believed in me. She made me think that all things were possible, that I could accomplish anything. Two months after my father died, she was late. I didn’t find out until she already knew she was pregnant. When I offered to quit school and go to work full time with the Iron Workers, to take care of her and our baby, she told me what she really thought of me, “Are you out of your fucking mind? Don’t answer that. It was rhetorical. You are insane. There is no way that I’m having any child of yours.” That hurt worse than anything I had ever heard up to that point in my life. It set in quickly and took hold, forming like cement on my psyche. Reeling already, I asked why.
“You are all fantasy and whimsy. You have no real sense of ambition. You’re irresponsible, and if you have any priorities, I don’t know what they are. Other than being cute and good in bed, you bring nothing to the table. On top of that, your pull-out game is very, very weak. I don’t know how I let you get me into this position. Right now, I can’t even stand the sight of you.”
I was having trouble fully comprehending her disdain for me. Inasmuch as I didn’t want to believe it, my mind refused to wrap itself around the truth. I offered to pay for the abortion, reluctantly trying to make myself culpable for the murder of my own unborn child. She wouldn’t take my money. She laughed at me when I asked if I could accompany her to the clinic. My denial was finally overcome when Maggie stated plainly that she never wanted to see me again. After my father’s indictment of me, this was a pretty powerful validation. Maggie’s concurrence set the downward spiral of self revulsion to full spin.
What has occurred since has been an unending series of inglorious failure. There were a few accidental successes and accomplishments, but even then, I have been unable to appreciate anything but the bitter. So when I prosper, which I sometimes do, the feeling is so hollow and unsatisfying, it might as well have been failure. When you reach the point where you feel utterly undeserving of anything, and you can’t even stand the sight of your own reflection in a mirror, a constant pain residing deep inside starts to take hold. I have no idea if a cure exists. Numbing it has been all I have ever succeeded in doing. I have become expert at emotional pain management through pharmaceuticals, legal and extra-legal.
In order to endure misery this consistent, the mind must play tricks on itself. I have learned to segment my existence. Living day to day was not sufficient. There is too much angst, misery and self-loathing to bear in a time frame that large. So I have further broken it down into moments. They come and they go. As awful as they might be, they are soon gone, and it is on to the next moment. And when they are gone, they never revisit. Much like Hudak.
Maybe Hudak will find me in California. Maybe he collected all of those moments. He can bring them with him in his airline carry-on. But, I have a hard time imagining him in Long Beach California. It’s unlikely, but I’ve learned at this point that nothing is impossible. It’s possible for instance, that the junkies that litter this bar will stop stealing my money off of it every time I go on the nod. Possible, but not very likely.
I’m passing moments now; a lot of them. I’m using Hudak as their metaphorical prototype. His passing was clean, without drama or ordeal. Most moments pass this way; a non-event. Others will not go so easily. They linger, like the burn from that last swallow of bourbon. Or the stale taste of cigarettes every time I cough. Or the way my veins ache, in a sick throbbing reminder a half-hour after I’ve tied off and jacked that last bit of heroin into my blood stream. Sometimes it feels like the spike is still in my arm. Sometimes it is, if the nod comes too quickly.
Nothing lingers like that moment when I was turned irreversibly down this road of despair. It began for me with the bitter, dismissive laugh of a nineteen-year-old girl, who in the end hated me almost as much as I hate myself. The aftermath has left me with all of these physical reminders that make it’s fading an impossibility. My arms are speckled with blood encrusted gouges. They throb when I don’t get my fix on time. My body, once lithe and athletic, is now devoid of muscle tone, and prevents anything resembling good posture. If the heroin is scarce, and withdrawal prolonged, it feels like gravity will pull my head below my knees; my spine now sufficiently gelatinous as to allow it. Most notably however, is the silly, cartoon of a voice I brought with me from New York.
When I was still buying my heroin on Troutman Street, in Brooklyn, I found myself surrounded by three toughs that counter-intuitively thought that a junkie that just scored still had some money. Not understanding addiction at all, they were furious when all I had in my pockets were the ten bags of dope. One of them had a knife, and it found my throat. It should have killed me. Then I wouldn’t be dealing with these annoying, painful moments that insist on lingering.
Instead it managed to cut half of my vocal chords. The other half were just traumatized. The effect was that my voice, when used for a purpose other than speaking softly, tended to sound like someone was cutting the balls off of a bull. This moment will not fade. There is nothing Hudak-like about it.
I can only imagine his surprise if he found me here. The LBC (Long Beach California) is known for three things. In no particular order, they are surfing, heroin and music. I liked surfing. I took to it right away; until I took to the heroin harder. Then I sold my board and never bought another. The music was a convenience. The LBC is full of bars and clubs that feature live music. If you had any musical ability, and a catalogue of original songs, you could get paid. The ultimate success story from the LBC was the band Sublime. It ended tragically and predictably when the creative force from the band, Bradley Nowell, died of a heroin overdose.
I had a guitar, and I could play three chords. The Clash had a nice career starting out with that much. I could also write a song. Channeling my misery as a muse, I compiled collections of rhyming couplets of what I thought was the most ridiculous self-pity. No one seemed to notice that I was ostensibly writing the same song, over and over again. Coupled with my wrecked voice, harshened even more from bourbon and chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, the consensus was that mine was the authoritative voice of despair. To me, it just sounded awful. But, one man’s shit is another man’s treasure.
So there was money. Money and despair means more dope. The Pepsi Cola drug habit I brought with me from New York soon morphed into a full-blown nut crushing addiction. As I continued to spiral down, I would look for someone to explain it to me. Failing that, someone to whom I could lament it. So I would talk to Hudak.
“I’m miserable, Hudak,” I would say. “I’m lonely. I’m ugly. I’m filthy, and vile in places and ways I never imagined possible.”
Somehow here, in the LBC, I am regarded as gifted and relevant. I am supposed to be some kind of street-wise minstrel visionary. I am the voice of despair for people that have nothing to be desperate about. This is what makes my soul ache most; the people who are most impressed with my suffering don’t have enough first-hand experience with it to make their opinions valid, or to sanctify mine as true.
I could just see Hudak shaking his head dolefully.
These people are so easily misled. They even think my sense of style is trendy. Actually, I dress the same as I always have. In fact, these are the very same jeans I was wearing when I “disappeared” from New York. But I don’t eat much, so they hang on me. Then there are the holes, recent and inevitable additions. Out here, this casual style has become a craze. I’ve become an accidental fashion statement, while living like an accident all together.
“That’s a bitchin’ outfit, dude,” a surfer-poser interrupted me between nods at the bar one night; “How’d you get em’ like that?” he asked, referring to their tattered condition.
“Beach rats gnaw on me in my sleep,” I said through my dreamy heroin haze.
He was thoroughly and misguidedly impressed. I knew this guy. Not him in particular, but I knew the type. I had been entertaining his sort since I crashed in the LBC. They were hungry for cheap thrills. So I showed them their seamy side. The one they could only touch vicariously. I spent my days and nights fucking up for their amusement.
There was a similar type of poser back in New York, but they were more intense. Certainly, they spoke faster. Even still, they were essentially the same. They loved the whole drugs, decadence and despair scene. But they were only voyeurs. They had too firm a grasp on their own ambition to ever devolve into this kind of self-destructiveness. If they ever actually tried to live this shit life, they would have their bitchin Camaros and their expense account style allowances rescinded. They were brave enough to bask in my seedy glow, and they were never at a loss for stupid questions.
“What do you do when you’re not getting trashed in this place?” one such pretender asked.
“The same as I do here, only someplace else.”
“Come on, man. Seriously, what do you do?”
This was a tough poser to please. He had a scumbag sense of entitlement that led me to believe he was a regular attendee at Tony Robbins seminars. I didn’t know if he could be offended, but I was going to try, “I avoid bathing, and have frequent and distracted sex with your girlfriend and sister. But not together-not yet, anyway.”
He thought this was hysterical. He hooted and slapped my back, like we were old buddies, in on a joke together. He insisted on buying me a drink. The sad aspect of the whole thing was that it was true. The week before, when he was not at the bar, his girlfriend dragged me into the ladies room. She did me there in the stall, and later that night she bought me a bag of dope. The next night, his sister blew me in the alley out by the dumpsters. At this point, I knew he would never be able to get his mind around the idea of his girl and his sister getting dicked by a dirty junky. So I took his whiskey and toasted his health.
“Fuck your face, Charles Bukowski!”
I think I’m near the end, Hudak. All the signs and omens seem to suggest it. A younger version of who I used to be showed up from New York. The upper-east side, I think he said. His parents had sent him out here to live for a while with his aunt. They wanted to get him away from the pot and cocaine he was involved with back home.
In a feat of herculean naiveté, they gave him a couple thousand dollars, and told him to take it easy. Enjoy the California summer. Perhaps they thought he would spend the money on ice-cream and suntan oil. They said to have fun. They should have been specific. Fun in the LBC was heroin.
We pooled our money and dope and had a week long junky clam-bake. We were cooking up, and booting right down on the beach. It got so bad, we had to start looking for alternate veins to shoot into. After burning out our arms and legs, we were desperate for another portal to get the dope in. I managed to hit the vein under my tongue. The kid from New York couldn’t find his vein there. So he dropped his drawers and stuck the underside of his dick, like he did it every day. I was moved to tears. I’m a dedicated degenerate, but I’d go back to sniffing my junk before I’d hit the bottom of my cock with a needle. But, he seemed content enough, and we both went off on the long nod.
When I woke up, it was morning. The kid’s gimmicks were still in the sand, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was kind enough to leave me three bags of dope. For all I know, he might be on his way to Japan, face down, blue and bloated. Maybe he just got disgusted with this life. I wouldn’t know about that. I no longer think enough of myself to be disgusted by anything I might do. I am beyond the pale, and the bottom has dropped out.
I feel bad for him though. He was a needle virgin when I met him. Now he’s a pin cushion. Where ever he went, he took a first class, rock and roll drug habit with him, “What’s it like shooting up?” he asked that first night down on the beach.
“It’s like being kissed by the lips of the Lord,” I said dramatically. I neglected to tell him that heroin was a lord without pity. I suspect he knows that now. At least he has the rest of the dope. He bought most of it anyway.
Now, with the backs of my legs cramping so badly they feel like an onion trying to peel itself, getting fixed has become my only priority. With each passing minute, I find myself resenting him more and more for taking the rest of the dope away. I recognize his three bag gift for what it was. Not enough to sustain me, but enough for something. My animus is irrational. It was his dope, after all. But, this kind of resentment is not without precedent.
You were there then, Hudak. Only for a week or two, but you saw me break. After Maggie crushed me, if you looked, you would have seen me crest, then plummet. It’s been straight down at terminal velocity ever since.
I had no right to feel cheated or abandoned. She was just protecting herself, taking away her most cherished possession. Far be it from me to feel bitter. But there were a whole mess of subtleties and intangibles at work then. I can’t bear to think about them, even now. I think that is the beauty of our relationship, Hudak. You bring with you no such subtlety. You can’t abandon me since absence is your sole function in whatever this is.
Now, as the summer fades, and the heat will not, I find myself beseeching you more and more. I am in peril. I have the shaking sweats, intermittent with teeth clattering chills. I’m producing an odor from my pores that is a nauseating mix of ammonia, rotting meat and hard boiled eggs. I didn’t imagine something so foul was even possible. I can’t remember why I came out here in the first place. I’m waiting for you to tell me, “You got tired of failing in New York. So you came out here, where at least you would be warm. And to die, you came here to die.”
“That’s it,” I croak, finally resolved. You understand my need to waste away in the California sun, where there was no one I knew to embarrass with my homage to failure. Somehow, I even managed to fuck that up. There is no warmth in misery. Despair is a frozen wasteland, even in the eye of the west coast sun. When they ship my desiccated carcass back east, my family will not only be embarrassed, but horrified. Such wreckage have I done to myself.
This is my moment, Hudak. The final one, where I achieve my destiny. I can see you looking on. For once, there is no judgement in your eyes. You understand how this must end. The culmination of my unbridled, epic failure is my final success. You nod approvingly as I cook up and inject three full bags of Mexican Black Tar heroin. As I quietly and neatly slip into that place, where all moments, both lingering and abrupt, must ultimately go.
Michael O’Keefe is a retired NYPD detective. An award winning poet and novelist, he recently released his debut novel, Shot to Pieces. Growing up and later working in the toughest neighborhoods in New York, his fiction features the colorful and damaged characters he met there; on both sides of the law.