Richard Lange

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.