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Tom Drury

Heroin Man

Frost drove an oil truck in Vermont, a big orange oil truck, through the Green Mountains. Sometimes he thought his customers were like junkies. They would call him in the middle of the night:

"We're out, Frost. We're bone-dry. We hate to bother you, but you gotta come over and give us some. I'm sorry Frost, but we're shivering. We won't make it till morning, buddy."

Sometimes Frost, for the fun of it, would mentally substitute the word heroin for the word oil during conversations with his customers.

"Say, we were wondering if we couldn't have our heroin delivered at a certain time each month, instead of having to call you in a major panic when we run out."

"Sure we can do that."

"The thing is, I'm not sure how much heroin we use. Probably quite a lot. Grandma's home all day and she really likes to crank it up."

Frost would not have been making such idle comparisons had he not been restless. October had come, so the problem was partly seasonal, but really, he had been restless all year. The contented mind does not worry about similes or finding the connection between oil and heroin. And why should it?

Frost was about to turn forty-four. He had a wife and four children. The children were named Nate, Julia, Wedge, and Candy, and they fought all the time. Their hatred was a thing of wonder, and yet Frost knew it was common. Once he had gone to a therapist who said, "I can understand this ambivalence about your siblings, Rick. I myself am an only child, but you see I have two children of my own and sometimes it seems as though they really, truly cannot stand one another."

"My kids are, oh, what's the word, like cherubs," said Frost. And they were, then. It was only later, when there were more of them, that they turned evil.

The therapist was on Frost's oil route. He was the sort who liked to come out and stand around while the oil was running, as if Frost was going to steal the drainpipes off his house. On the other hand, the therapist worked at home and didn't have many customers. Where Frost lived, a lot of people had businesses in their homes, and Frost always hesitated to go in. He didn't want to use the wrong door or interrupt a squalid family scene. The therapist would smile sentimentally as if receiving Communion instead of heating oil. Another simile-when would they stop?

Frost went home at the end of a long Friday. He pulled up the driveway, parked the orange truck, and went inside. Wedge and Candy were insulting each other deftly while carefully watching cartoons and sitting with perfect composure in armchairs.

"Everyone hates you."

"Shut up."

"Make me."

"I don't make trash, I burn it."

"If you died everyone would sing hallelujah."

"If you died everyone would dance around the Maypole."

"That's enough," said Frost. "If one of you died the other would feel terrible guilt for years. So unless you want to fritter your lives away in a series of depressions, I'd advise you both to pipe down right now."

But Wedge could not leave his sister alone. "If Candy died all the birds would burst forth in glorious song."

"I'll turn that TV off," said Frost, "if that's what it takes."

Upstairs Nate, Julia, and Frost's wife, Deirdre, were in the family room watching Walt Disney's Fantasia on the video player. That's how they always said it around the Frost household, Disney's name included, a measure of respect for the man whose impact on America rivaled that of Jesus or Thomas Paine. It was the part of Fantasia when the Hieronymus Bosch ghouls have returned to the graveyard after a night of terror and "Ave Maria" is playing and people are walking over a bridge with lanterns in the early light. Deirdre was holding onto a big glass of Seagram's and Coke and sobbing silently.

"It's just so sad," she said. "I mean, it's all right there, isn't it? The viciousness of life but, yes, its beauty. Look, Rick, the people are coming home. . . . "

"I like this part too," said Frost. He lowered himself into a bean bag chair to watch and immediately began wondering how he would manage to get up again. "How was work?" said Frost.

"Terrible," said Deirdre, who was a bus dispatcher. "One of the drivers, Bob Smith, ran over two ladies who were crossing the street without a care in the world."

"What do you mean, ran over? You're exaggerating, aren't you? I'm sure he didn't run them over."

"Oh but he did."

Frost looked at Deirdre, but her eyes were locked onto the screen. "So they're, what, dead? Two dead ladies, and Bob Smith sitting in jail on a murder rap."

"One has a broken leg, that tells you something."

"It tells me he didn't run over them."

She glared at him. "Yes! He ran over their legs! What am I talking for, my own enjoyment?"

"You never said a word about legs," said Frost. "You implied these women were crushed. All right? That's what run-over means to any rational person."

"You know, I must say, we were very happily watching Walt Disney's Fantasia, until you strolled in."

"I can't get up," said Frost. "So you're going to have to learn to live with me."

"How was your work?" said Deirdre.

"Do you know Virginia Lasalle?" said Frost.


"That Lasalle couple living up on Caspian Avenue."


"So I'm hooking up the hose and Virginia comes out of the house and she says, 'Say, I know this isn't really your line of work, but my car won't start, and I wonder if you have any ideas.' So I say, 'Well, did you look under the hood?' And she says, 'What would I be looking for?' So we go over and she gets behind the wheel of their Plymouth Fury and I lift the hood and what do you think she's got in there? Rabbits. And I say, 'When was the last time you had this car running?' And she says, 'Yesterday.' And I say, 'Mrs. Lasalle, I hate to disagree, but I don't think it was yesterday.' So she says, 'Well, one of those days.' She says, 'Since my husband took off I have no way of getting to the dentist.'"

"I didn't know the Lasalles were split up," said Deirdre. "But it makes me sick the way people take advantage of you. They want you to do everything but deliver oil."

"Let's have a taste of that drink," said Frost.

"Now don't get too comfortable down there, because don't forget, we have that carnival to go to."

"I did forget. What is that about?" said Frost.

"It's the regular carnival that comes every year for Oktoberfest," said Deirdre. "Part of the proceeds are going to my book club this year."

"We don't have an Oktoberfest."

"Look, I don't know what you call it. This is October, isn't it? Call it what you like."

"That shoddy carnival?"

"You call it such."

Deirdre's book club was taking over the town. Everywhere Frost looked he saw people carrying the same books, like religious zombies. One week they read Metamorphoses by Ovid, and Frost opened Deirdre's copy and read the line: "The fire supplied what light there was-how useful!" He liked this so much he borrowed it. At work just the other day his supervisor said, "Joey Robinson got the flu, so you and Cochrane have to split up his route," and Frost said, "How useful."

Deirdre had liked the Ovid book, because when women cried in it, their tears turned to precious stones.

"One thing I don't get," said Frost, "is why a book club needs to raise money. Reading is still free, isn't it?"

"For refreshments," said Deirdre.

The carnival was held in the park in the Frosts' town beside the new-age playgrounds, which were made of lumber and tires and resembled a prison for medieval children. The kids fought in the back of the station wagon and Nate elbowed Julia in the solar plexus. Julia gasped several times for air and then slumped forward.

"Oh God, Rick, pull over," said Deirdre. "Oh my baby."

Frost stopped the car and gently lifted Julia back to a sitting position. "Well, this is a first," he said to Nate. "You've knocked her out cold. Hey, Julie. Hey, little one."

"Come back, Julia," said Nate. He took his sister's hand. "Please come back."

Julia's face was pale. Frost, Deirdre, and Nate were kind of marveling how pretty she was in this inert state, when gradually her eyelids fluttered up, revealing her baby blues. "I've been far away from you," she said. "There are angels in the tall grass."

Wedge and Candy were crying fearfully in the most remote part of the station wagon. "Do we still get to ride the circus wheel?" said Candy.


The carnival had no Ferris wheel. The only ride was a specious contraption consisting of metal chairs suspended by chains from a dozen overhead spokes that turned on a rusted hub.

"No way you're getting on that," said Frost. "I'm sorry. No, I think not. Too dangerous."

"Rides are supposed to be dangerous," said Wedge.

"To create the illusion of danger," said Frost. "Big difference. We just had a scare with your sister passing out on account of Nate, and I don't really want to push our luck."

All the sideshow attractions were in the backs of trucks, so that everyone spent the night climbing like movers in and out of semi trailers. There were two monkeys in a cage. They were called Adam and Eve and their eyes were deep and startling. The children gave them peanuts.

"They look so grievous it almost seems like they could talk," said Deirdre. "Isn't that strange? I wonder how old they are. They look like they're getting up there. I wonder what they would say if only they could speak."

"Probably something along the lines of, 'For the love of God, open the cage,'" said Frost. "I would think escape would be uppermost on their minds."

"I wish they wouldn't look at us that way," said Deirdre. "It's not like we did anything."

"Look at them," said Frost. "They've seen it all a thousand times. Every town like the one before. Next! That's what they're saying. Next!"

"Let's move on," said Deirdre. "Let's go see the Mummy's Hand. Come on, children. Don't tease the monkeys. Julia, do not hurl the peanut. Gently toss, gently toss the peanut."

In the Big Top a sharpshooter picked off tiny green buttons from a white board propped against an easel. A woman named Cleo arranged the buttons with sinuous gestures. She had a great figure.

"You see what's happening, don't you?" said Frost.

Deirdre was trying to sneak passages from the big paperback she was supposed to have done in two days. "The man is shooting," she murmured.

"Sure he is," said Frost. "And the targets are falling. So we assume he's hitting the targets. But what if he's only hitting the board? The board would not be hard to hit. In fact the board would be hard to miss."

"I think the assistant is doing something," said Deirdre. "She has strings attached to her fingers. Mark my words."

"Strings?" said Frost. "You have lost it."

They could not agree on what was happening and talked about it all the way home and even after the kids were asleep. "Strings," said Frost. He turned out the light.

"Strings, right."

The phone rang after midnight. Frost was out of bed simultaneously with the sound. The phone was on a table in the hallway.

"Frost, you gave me too much," said Mrs. Lasalle.

"Too much what?" said Frost.

"In my basement. Oil. It ran over." There was a muffled sound on the line and it almost sounded like she was laughing. "I've been smelling something all night. Finally I had the presence of mind to check."

"A lot or a little? Can you see the pool? Is it bigger than a large braided rug? Do you have a service contract?"

"Smaller than a rug, I would say. But, let's face it, any oil is too much."

"I'll be over," said Frost.

Mrs. Lasalle had a bad gasket on her oil tank. Frost replaced it and cleaned up the oil that had spilled. He had to write a report for the state and so afterward he took notes while sitting with Mrs. Lasalle at her kitchen table.

"Thank you for coming out," she said. She stood up and got some pills down from the top of the refrigerator. "I'm having work done on my teeth, and they gave me these for the pain. Take one. You always seem to be carrying around the weight of the world. This will change your outlook."

Frost looked at her in the dim light. His eyes felt large and dry. "Mrs. Lasalle, I don't know if that's good or bad."

She smiled. "Oh, it's good, all right," she said. "It's like lying by a stream with the wind blowing in the grass. That's the closest comparison I know."

Frost got a glass of water and took the pill. "I could use some of that," he said.

Tom Drury is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker.

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