Instinctive Drowning Response
Maryrose dies on Wednesday, and on Friday Campbell dreams he was there when it happened. Tony said she passed out right after she fixed, slumped over on the couch, so that’s where that part comes from. And then Tony stuck her in the shower to try to revive her, and that part’s there too. In the dream, however, Campbell is with them, and Maryrose’s eyes pop open as soon as the cold water hits her, and she shakes her head and yells, “What the fuck’s going on?” “Nothing, baby, nothing,” Campbell replies, and – it’s a dream, remember – they live happily ever after. But dreams are bullshit. Dreams break your heart. When someone’s dead, she’s dead, and when it’s someone you loved, some of your world dies with her. The places Campbell went with Maryrose give him the creeps now. Everything that used to be fun isn’t anymore. He can’t bring himself to sit on their favorite bench in the park, and the tacos at Siete Mares taste like dirt. At least dope still does him right. Thank God for dope.
They met at a cemetery called Hollywood Forever where movies were shown in the summer. Friends of his and friends of hers brought blankets and Spanish cheese and splurgy bottles of wine, and everybody sprawled on the grass to stare at Clint Eastwood in a cowboy hat projected onto the wall of a mausoleum. Campbell got up to have a cigarette after the big shootout, and Maryrose asked if she could bum one. They smoked together under a palm tree and made fun of themselves for being degenerates. Somehow they got on the subject of drugs. It was kind of a game. Ever done this? Ever done that? Maryrose surprised Campbell when she said yes to junk. “That shit’ll kill you,” he said. “Well, yeah,” she said. “Someday.” A week later he moved into her place in Silver Lake. He hadn’t had a craft services gig in over a month and working the door at Little Joy paid mostly in drinks. Maryrose told him not to worry about it because her dad took care of the rent. The apartment overlooked a storefront church, the kind with a hand-painted sign and a couple of rows of battered folding chairs. Services started every night at seven. “O Dios, por tu nombre, sálvame,” the preacher would shout. “O precioso sangre de Jesus.” Maryrose liked to get stoned and lie in front of the open window and listen to the congregation send their hymns up to heaven. “It’s so beautiful,” she’d groan, tears as hot and bright as stars streaming down her cheeks.
Campbell cops for Martin now and then, and Martin hires Campbell to help him and his brothers serve food to film crews on location. They’re downtown today, where a sci-fi thing is shooting, and Campbell is handing out lattes and doughnuts to little green men and robot soldiers. He watches a couple of extras flirt and tries to see it as the sweet start of something but isn’t feeling expansive enough yet. Since Maryrose died, anything not rimed with sorrow is suspect; anything gentle, anything hopeful, is as deceptive as a 13-year-old girl’s daydream of love, a sugar-coated time bomb. Martin brings over one of the actors. He introduces him as Doc, but Campbell knows his real name, everybody does, he’s that famous. “Doc likes to party,” Martin says, and everybody knows what that means too. “Can you hook him up?” An explosion goes off on the set. Campbell and Martin and Doc all jump and giggle, and Doc points out a flock of startled pigeons wheeling overhead, scared shitless.
Maryrose dies on Wednesday, and a week later her mother and sister show up at the apartment and kick Campbell out. He feels like a criminal, packing his stuff, the way they watch him to make sure he doesn’t take anything of Maryrose’s. “I blame you,” her mother says. “And I hope the weight of that crushes you.” He calls his own mother for money. She says no, and his dad doesn’t even answer the phone. They hope he gets crushed too, but they call it “tough love.” Tony lets him stay at his house, the same house where Maryrose OD’d. At night, from his bed in the spare room, Campbell hears Tony telling the story over and over to his customers. “She was gone, dude, just like that.” To pay his way he makes deliveries for Tony, drives him around, washes his dishes, and takes out his trash. Then they get high and watch tattoo shows on TV. Tony is covered with tattoos, even has one with some of his dead mother’s ashes mixed into the ink. “You know, she thought you were an idiot,” Campbell says one night when Tony’s so fucked up that he’s drooling. “Who?” Tony says. “Maryrose,” Campbell says. Tony nods for a second like he’s thinking this over, then says again, “Who?”
She’d dropped out of USC, dropped out of Art Center and dropped out of the Fashion Institute, and the six months her parents had given her to decide what she wanted to do with her life were almost up. If she wasn’t back in school by September, they’d cut her off. Some days she was defiant, shouting, “I’m proud to be a traitor to my class!” Other days she was too depressed to get out of bed. She’d stream sitcoms from her childhood, the laugh tracks taunting her as she buried her head under her pillow. Campbell worried about her when she was like this. He asked other girls he knew for advice. “She needs a project,” one of them said, so he bought her some clay. They sat together in the breakfast nook and made a mess sculpting little pigs and turtles and snakes. “You’re really good at this,” Campbell told her. The scorn that flashed across her face let him know she’d seen through him. She smashed the giraffe she’d been working on and locked herself in the bathroom with their last bindle of Mexican brown.
Doc was a lifeguard before he was a movie star, and that’s what he talks about when Campbell shows up at his house in Laurel Canyon with the dope he ordered. Martin is there too, and the three of them sit out on the deck, drinking beer and trying to pretend heroin isn’t the only thing they have in common. “When someone is super close to drowning, they don’t struggle or scream or splash,” Doc says. “What happens is, their mind shuts off and pure instinct takes over. They can’t cry for help, they can’t wave their arms, they can’t even grab a rope if you throw them one, because they’re totally focused on one thing: keeping their head above water and taking their next breath. What it looks like is climbing a ladder, like they’re trying to climb a ladder in the water, and if you don’t reach them within twenty or thirty seconds, they’re goners.” Doc smokes his junk because he doesn’t want marks, but he watches intently while Campbell and Martin fix. Afterward, Campbell lies on a chaise lounge and listens to the sounds of a party going on somewhere down-canyon, music and laughter riding on the back of a desert wind. He remembers a line from a book about Charles Manson, about how on the night of the Tate murders, which took place in another canyon not far from here, the same wind made it possible to hear ice cubes clinking a mile away. All of a sudden he’s uneasy, imagining a gang of acid-crazed hippies sneaking up on them. He stands and walks to the railing, his heart tossing in his chest, and scans the hillside below the house for an escape route. A coyote trail crisscrosses the slope like a nasty scar, and if he needed to, he could scramble down it to the road and be the lucky one who gets away.
Maryrose dies on Wednesday, and Campbell finds out about it a couple of hours later, when Tony calls him at the bar. During the conversation Campbell goes from staring at some LMU chick’s fake ID to sitting on the sidewalk. He slaps away any helping hands and shuts his ears to all consolation. His and Maryrose’s thing was always them against the world, and to let anyone in now would be a betrayal. He keeps waiting to cry but never does. The ground doesn’t open up, and the moon stays where it is in the sky. When his legs work again, he gets up and walks straight down Sunset toward the ocean. He crosses PCH early the next morning and collapses on the sand. The fog is so thick he can’t see the waves, only hear them pounding the shore. Good. Nothing. Anymore. Ever. The cops show up later that day, after he’s ridden the bus back to the apartment. The detective who does the talking is a tall woman with white, white teeth. Campbell answers all her questions with lies. He doesn’t do dope, Maryrose didn’t do dope, and Tony is a fucking saint. The woman and her partner move gingerly around the place, like they’re afraid to touch anything, and when Campbell coughs, the woman winces and claps a protective hand over her nose.
They talked about getting a dog, even went to the shelter to look for one. All they found there were psychotic pit bulls and shivering Chihuahuas, and the smell and the barking drove them out after just a few minutes. “Are you telling me normal people can deal with that?” Maryrose said. She liked to cook but forgot pots on the stove, left them simmering until the smoke alarm went off. Driving too. She’d wrecked a couple of cars, and the one she had when Campbell met her bore the dents and scrapes of a dozen close calls, a hundred little lapses, each a new wound to lick. When she was straight she wanted to be what she wasn’t: productive and reliable, focused and stable. “Some people are just made messy,” Campbell told her. “Not me,” she replied. “I was born right and got twisted.” Whole days went by like that, where he couldn’t crack her codes. When she was happy, though, when she was high, contentment oozed from her like sweet-smelling sap. She’d name the ducks in Echo Park, dance to the music of the ice cream truck, and press her lips to his throat and leave them there. When she was happy, when she was high.
Doc starts texting Campbell at all hours, stuff like Hey man and Ragin’ tonight? What it boils down to is he wants dope. Campbell tries to blow him off in the beginning, because dealing to a movie star seems like a good way to get busted, but then his own habit gets out of hand, and he has no money, and Doc pays double for everything and doesn’t like to party alone. Campbell spends one night at the guy’s house, a couple more the next week, and then he’s practically living there. They sleep all day and order in from expensive restaurants. Doc’s name is magic. A chef from one of the places actually delivers the food himself and puts the finishing touches on the meal in the house’s kitchen. The girls who drop by every now and then aren’t whores, but they’ll take whatever they can get. Tall, leggy creatures, they know how to sit in short dresses and run in high heels, and all their conversations are in another language about some other world. Doc is always relieved when they leave for their parties and clubs, when it’s finally just him and Campbell and the dope comes out.
One day they drive down to the Strip to eat lunch. Afterward a display of sunglasses in the window of a store catches Doc’s eye. He goes inside and tries on a few pairs and makes Campbell try some too, sharing a mirror with him. “Those are hot on you,” he says about one pair. “Like Michael Pitt hot.” He insists on buying them for Campbell. Seven-hundred-dollar sunglasses. Campbell wears them later that afternoon when he makes a quick trip to the East side to replenish their stash. The bums look jaunty through the perfectly tinted lenses, the poor Mexicans happy. “How much do you think these cost?” he asks Tony. “What the fuck do I care?” Tony replies. The sun is going down on his way back to the canyon, shining through the windshield at an annoying angle. With his new glasses he can stare right into it and take all the glare it has to give.
Maryrose dies on Wednesday. There’s a funeral two weeks later, but Campbell isn’t invited. He moves out of Tony’s and in with a bartender from Little Joy. Everything is good until the guy finds blood spattered on the bathroom wall and a syringe under the couch and tells Campbell to pack his shit and go. “I’ve lived with junkies before,” he says. “They’re nothing but holes that can’t be filled. And they steal.” So it’s back to Tony’s, back to the house where Maryrose died. He continues to shoot up on the couch where she shot up and to shower in the tub where her heart stopped beating. It’s a curse, having to relive the worst over and over, trying to breathe that air, and he knows that if he doesn’t get away, he’s going to die too.
The first step is to retake the reins of his habit, be a man about it. Without too much suffering he manages to taper off to two hits a day. What eventually derails him is some punk at the bar who knew Maryrose saying something stupid about “that’s what happens when an angel dances with the devil” and then, later, a photo he happens upon while scrolling through the pictures on his phone. It’s Maryrose the day before she OD’d, looking like a ghost already. And he’s the one who did that to her. She was just chipping when they met, and trying to keep up with him is what got her hooked. It’s not a new realization, but this time it hurts enough to serve as a reason for backsliding into a three-day bender that hollows out his head and scrapes his bones clean of flesh. Oh, baby, he thinks when he finally pops to the surface on a bright fall morning when the tree shadows look like claws grabbing at the sidewalk, I can’t come meet you there ever again.
He and Maryrose tried to kick together after a bad balloon of what was supposed to be tar burned going in and made them both vomit their souls into the kitchen sink. This even after they’d been warned not to buy from that dealer by someone whose brother had ended up in the hospital just from smoking the stuff. If they were so strung out they’d risk shooting rat poison, it was time to quit. They threw some clothes into a suitcase, gassed up Campbell’s Toyota, and headed out into the desert. Traffic on the freeway inched along, and the city stretched on forever. They stopped for lunch at Del Taco, but neither of them could eat. Then the army of windmills near Palm Springs freaked Maryrose out, the relentless turning of their giant blades suggesting an inexorability that was at odds with her lace-winged fantasy of bucking her fate. They checked into a desiccated motel on the shore of the Salton Sea. Even though the thermometer outside the office read 100 degrees, Maryrose wanted to walk down to the beach. It was covered with fish bones and scavenging gulls and had a stench that stuck in their throats. Back in the room they turned the noisy air conditioner to high and shivered under the thin blanket, unable to decide if they were hot or cold. Maryrose clutched her cramping stomach and kicked her feet. “My legs,” she moaned. “My legs.” She sat up, lay down, and sat up again. Gritting his teeth against his own agony, Campbell limped into the bathroom and drew her a glass of water. She drank it down but immediately vomited onto the linoleum next to the bed. Campbell placed his hand on her burning forehead and tried to mumbo jumbo some of her pain into him. He finally passed out for a while, waking near dawn.
They dragged themselves out to the car as soon as the sun bubbled red on the horizon and turned back toward L.A. Tony was still up from the night before. He sold them some shit, and they fixed right then and there, marveling at how fine they suddenly felt. They never discussed the trip as a failure, only joked about what fools they’d been for thinking they could go cold turkey. Vague plans were floated to try again in a month or so, this time with some Xanax or Klonopin to help with the withdrawals, but they always found some reason to put it off.
Aww, damn, here they come up the drive: Doc’s agent, Doc’s manager, and Doc’s little brother, to serve as muscle. “Shoot me up quick,” Doc demands, thrusting out his arm. Campbell ignores him, more worried about gathering his belongings before he gets the bum’s rush. He’s hurrying up the stairs when they come through the door. Doc yells at them to keep the fuck away and let him be, but Campbell can hear in his voice that he’s ready to get off the roller coaster. Doc’s brother busts in on Campbell as he’s stuffing his clothes into his backpack. “If you’re not out of here in two minutes, I’m calling the cops,” the brother says. When Campbell walks past him, he shoves Campbell toward the stairs, almost knocking him down. “Touch me again, and I’ll sue you,” Campbell says. “You aren’t suing anybody, you fucking loser,” the brother scoffs. Doc is sitting on the sofa between his manager and his agent. He’s crying like a scared little boy, and his manager is stroking his hair and telling him everything will be fine. His brother stays on Campbell’s tail all the way out to the driveway. Campbell hops into his car and wills it to start on the first try. The rear window shatters as he reaches the street, making him flinch and slam on the brakes. Doc’s brother drops the other rock he’s holding and dares Campbell to make something of it. That very evening Campbell trades the fancy sunglasses for fifty dollars’ worth of junk.
Maryrose dies on Wednesday, and a year – a year! – later Campbell marks the anniversary by returning to Echo Park, which he’s been avoiding since her passing. He’s a month sober, going to meetings, but struggles every day. Martin quit too, Tony’s in jail, and Doc did a very public stint in rehab and emerged a hero. Campbell tosses some potato chips to the ducks, but not one of them has the energy to climb out of the water and waddle up the bank to get them. It’s the third day of a heat wave, and the sun is showing everyone who’s boss. Grass crumbles underfoot, palms hiss overhead, and the forsaken stand in the shadows of telephone poles, waiting for buses that are always late.
Maryrose claimed that the first time she did dope was the first time in her life she felt normal. “Why do you think it’s called a fix?” she said. Campbell didn’t argue; he just liked to see her smile. They’d come down to this bench, eat paletas, and make up songs about the people passing by. She’d laugh herself silly crooning about a fat kid kicking a soccer ball, then collapse breathless into his arms. And that’s when he felt normal for the first time. But who’s going to believe that? Who even wants to hear it? Better to keep those memories to himself, to guard them like a treasure against time, the goddamn drip, drip, drip of days that would wash them away.
Richard Lange’s new story collection, Sweet Nothing, will be out in February 2015 (Mulholland/Little, Brown). His stories have appeared in The Sun, The Southern Review, and Best American Mystery Stories, and as part of the Atlantic Monthly’s Fiction for Kindle series. He has stories coming up in Kenyon Review Online and Summerset Review, and is the author of the collection Dead Boys and the novels This Wicked World and Angel Baby, which won this year’s Hammett Prize. Lange received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow.