Aimee Keeble: No Ode to Oxy (essay)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I live in North Carolina. This area of America has been savaged by Oxycontin or as they call it around here ‘hillbilly heroin.’ I’ve met a lot of people who have been affected by the drug; this is a particularly intimate portrait of a life laid low but not broken by dope sickness.

No Ode to Oxy

He says there’s a place for him, dope white and acrid as silence. He keeps the gates locked and holds his hands to his ears at night when the clamor of pills perfect and poisonous mew like lost kittens. I spun a sack of dead cats around my head once, they felt like a millstone I didn’t want to forsake. Sometimes when he sneezes he feels the loss of exultation. He mourns the lack of pharmaceutical magic and the burn of drug milk in his trachea. 

He says North Carolina has been good to him. 

I used to spend my nights blown out and bellowing like a battle god. I held Death by the throat as my liver floated black into my mouth. I had hyena lips then, my tongue fondled trash and slurped up crumbs of nirvana. I, Lord Junk of Mooresville, overdosed once (maybe); I watched myself burst into a million gobs of meat, like a procession of space junk swallowed down a black hole. I came to in a white room whose walls curved outward like swollen breasts. 

Oxycontin tracked me sweetly, it sang in little chirps and picked at the fleas on my back. I stalked the neighborhoods soaked blue under starvation. I was drawn by the violence of blood curdled snug around the spike and hot yellow highs. I hoovered amphetamines and chowed down on pubic bones. 

He dealt drugs from his parents’ driveway. Bad omens squirmed in the pocket of his sweatpants. He had no need for shoes and loped the roads in plastic pool sliders. Nightly, he watched from the borders of his territory the traffic lights bleed and meaningless stars for hours, then surrendered under the spell of intoxication, swooning finally in a garden chair. 

The opiate plague of North Carolina shuffles exhausted from city to city, its gummy eyes vacant with longing. It moans and drools, avoiding cars and wringing its hands at the back of roadside diners. It shrinks itself from a word to a letter and slips down the raw mouths of the suffering. Pain is obliterated beneath its opalescent claws. It sniffs the tang of mountains and limps north; chewing zombie indifferent on the necks of the half wild folk of Appalachia and picks its teeth with the remains of their marbles. 

It spreads as love does.

He observes (is half aware) of his friends dying. Their hearts pop, plump and fast as rabbits caught in dopamine jaws. In the bathroom mirror he stretches the skin surrounding his eye and looks for water but he’s all dried up. The drugs work. Giddy, he sets fire to a porch and pretends he is doing a rain dance in Hell. 

Because he is smart he organizes a robbery of a pharmacy. He chooses an area tame and small, weak enough to be brought down without too fierce a struggle. Night is a soft dull thing in a parochial town, it has no reason to check under its shadows for monsters. First, as a diversion, he lights a solitary day-care center on fire. Orange and red and yellow crawls in and out of the windows and up the brick walls, busts out glass and nuzzles the rooftop. He runs in the dark down the block to the pharmacy and cracks open the doors, knowing the screams of the alarms will be ignored as the entire emergency response department will be at the burning building. Like a carrion bird he sweeps bottles under his wing. Thousands and thousands of pills rattle in his feathers like lice, like seeds small but potent with the promise of a dirty paradise. 

He flees through a hole in the woods, to a starlit patch of nothing earth and dirt and scraps of garbage and settles in the cold to snuffle down medicine. He hears a faint wail of sirens and collapses, his view of the constellations all the better as his body begins to numb. There go I into the Wasteland. 

He half remembers the crisp clink of cuffs which finally took him down. He twitched in the neon light of the law and gnashed like a shark. They raised him from the asphalt by his hackles and took him to the zoo to live with the other beasts. 

I should have served 6 years but served 6 months instead. I guess I’m lucky my skin is white; Southern justice is a half blind vampire that shoots African blood like whiskey. 

He languishes in rehab. Beltless and lace-less, he stalks the patches of mountain grass caught behind the bars and moans gently as feeling creeps back into his body. Blood dribbles from his nose. He rubs grit between his fingers and is reminded of the exquisite construction of a line of crushed up oxy.  

One night he is shocked awake by an awareness of living, he can feel the beat beat of desperate blood blitzing throughout his organs. He screams. He sees angels crouching wet on the linoleum floor, their soggy wings congealing with the diamond glint of drug powder. He reaches an arm out from the covers and one of them clasps his hand, it is as cold and sinewy as a pigeon foot. 

Seven lucky years have passed and he has lived each one of them sober. He is a tamer thing now, slower and heavier; he is as impassive as a tiger. Emotions are as dangerous as drugs. He becomes a respected person in his NA community and leaves grad school with a Masters in addiction counseling. He buys a puppy off Craigslist. He lives in the middle of things. In the mornings, after his coffee, he rests his chin on his chest and mummers to his heart. He has had his liver enzymes tested and has joined a local soccer team. He is shy of love and wonders if he will have it. He remembers when love was a kernel to be pulverized and snorted. 

Oxycontin flies down to Florida on skeletal wings. It creaks like a pterodactyl. Somewhere in Georgia it settles for a time, roosting above a bungalow then clatters to the top of a turquoise painted apartment complex. It croons in the open windows and taps a pearly talon on the glass. Without a body to crumble into it shivers and wails and pleads at the feet of those already on their knees. In Tallahassee it joins a biker gang and orchestrates an overdose in a Denny’s bathroom. It’s Frankenstein monster lonely. Lab baby, it knows only the aseptic touch of a pharmaceutical scientist. It was made to take the pain away. Lost and lurching, it prowls North and South along the Oxy Express like a hurricane. 

America shakes its skirts and remarks at the skittering of pills at its feet like tiny luminous pearls. How did these get here? It takes a thoughtful chomp, pops a few like Skittles. What is a life without pain? What is a life without feeling? What happens when you can no longer remember your heart beat? America shudders like a zombie. The sun pools like honey.