A Junkie's Work is Never Done

Ever since his first jolt of painkillers 17 years ago, Curt has been meaning to get clean. Soon.

Now he just needs a place to shoot it.

He can't go back home because his girlfriend called in sick today. She doesn't use anymore, and she doesn't like it when Curt does. She doesn't know he's getting high today. "Nobody can take brutal honesty from a junkie. It's just too much," he says, as if to convince himself of the nobility of his lie. "If she asks, I'll tell her." Meanwhile there's a coffee shop he knows, just south of downtown, where the bathroom is easy to get into. But first he stops at a nearby needle exchange to get a kit--some syringes, a rubber tie, cotton, water.

At the coffee shop, he asks to use the bathroom, but it's being cleaned. He stands in front of the door, crossing his legs and acting as if it's urgent. "I really need to go," he cajoles. The man cleaning the bathroom shuts the door. "Fine," Curt snaps bitterly. "I'll spend my money someplace else."

David Kern

Once outside, he practically skips up a couple of blocks and crosses the street, toward one of the bigger hotels in downtown Minneapolis. He's buoyant, excited, purposeful. He dashes through the large hotel's hallway, oblivious to the conventioneers with their nametags, chatting on their cell phones. He scampers into a bathroom.

"I love these baby things," he coos as he locks the door. He swiftly slides over to the plastic baby-changing table and lowers it from the wall. He dumps the contents of the small brown paper bag from the needle exchange onto the table, then reaches for a couple of paper towels and spreads them out.

"You've got to be realistic about how disease crosses lines," he lectures. "Hepatitis C can live on a thorn bush on a hiking trail. Like, if you walk by and scratch yourself, someone could come by the next year and scratch themselves and get Hepatitis C."

He produces the spitball-size wad of paper that's wrapped around the heroin. His fingers, with nails cut to the quick, clumsily try to undo the bundle. "It's hard to get these unwrapped. But it's worth it in the long run," he says, chuckling.

He places the heroin in some water in a container that looks like the base of a tea candle. He holds his lighter underneath the tin and cooks the concoction, to kill the bacteria. "At least you destroy the stuff that gets you biologically ill," he explains, as he sucks the amber liquid up into a syringe.

He looks up a moment. "If I drop, go tell someone. And leave and don't come back," he says. "But I've never dropped before." A high-pitched giggle flits from his smiling lips. "It's kind of sick that I can say that about dropping and then laugh."

Picking up the rubber tube in his left hand, Curt shakes out his right arm and ties it off at the bicep. He looks for a vein in his right hand, near the wrist. He inserts the tip of the needle into his hand, then pulls back a little. Blood rushes into the syringe, so he knows he's hit the vein. He pushes the plunger, unties the tie, and grimaces a little as he feels the sting of the drug entering his bloodstream.

He backs up a step. "Oh man. Oh yummy," he murmurs. He closes his eyes, rolls his head back and to the side, and a grin washes across his face. It's as if he's tasting something sweet after years of blandness, experiencing warmth after a lifetime of cold. "It's a really full feeling in your head. Your stomach feels like a dull stomachache. When I first started to feel it, I got a half of an erection. It's gone now."

His movements are noticeably slower now, more fluid. His voice has deepened, his eyelids are suddenly droopy and pink. He starts to clean up, noting that he always likes to leave the bathroom the way he found it. Usually, he adds, he can be in and out of there in 45 to 90 seconds.

Outside, his steps are languid, as if he's melting into the sidewalk. He lights a cigarette. "Are you hungry?" he asks. "Once I get well I just want to eat." A few minutes later, the high is already starting to fade. The pleasure he feels now is simply the absence of sickness.


Curt's addiction has cost him over the years--cost him material possessions, homes, relationships. He lives in a tiny room in a dingy hotel. He's in debt and in trouble with the law. He's got physical problems: The enamel on his teeth has been eaten away from the substances (sometimes quinine, aspirin, chalk) used to cut the heroin; he's more depressed than he used to be; he's had painful abscesses and infections on his hand from shooting up.

He has lost plenty of jobs because he's been sick from withdrawals one too many times--or simply walked out during his shift in order to get dope. His girlfriend, aggravated by all the lies, has threatened more than once to move out. He hasn't seen his son in two years. His parents have a closer relationship to Curt's son than he does, and often they seem more interested in spending time with their grandson than with their own son.

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