A junkie wore a Hawaiian shirt, without censure, to the funeral; an inept but honest attempt at formal attire. Everyone understood. At least it was faded.
He and a woman stood off to the side, with that tragic, impassive look the aging ones get. Their desiccated faces are rendered immobile; their mouths become narrow, constricted. Their stony faces can no longer convey emotion. But their eyes plead a little, still, as if there are captive mute children inside.
And in a sense every junkie does have a child flash-frozen inside; of the dozen or so present that August day they were mostly children when they went in for the needle, usually in the mid-teens. The first and only time someone offered me the needle I was about sixteen. He meant no harm.
“I wish I had veins like that,” another once remarked about the same time, admiring my scrawny arms; he seemed to think I was letting them go to waste. His own veins having collapsed long before in a spontaneous and futile attempt to save the body.
The hypodermic needle is like a baby’s bottle, and a junkie on the nod is like an untroubled newborn.
But he is not nourished into autonomy; he is relieved of it. He has inverted the process, passing backward through stages of dependence into non-existence. Death may be his final station, but it is incidental to his pursuit. The junkie is compulsively seeking out the pre-conscious state. He cannot return to the innocence of infancy so he substitutes oblivion. The junkie has “committed to the process”, like a true artist. He is devout in his way. The Junkie has eliminated the uncertainty and complications of living; he’s set in motion a plan; he knows how he will go out. There are no real surprises for him and his misery is without mystery.
Non-junkies cannot know the depth and nature of his love and devotion. He doesn’t want to die, he doesn’t want to deteriorate; he merely accepts these costs. He wants to shed his baggage like any pilgrim. He wants to eradicate himself to experience the consequent unburdening. A Junkie is napalming his own untenable position. Junkies will accept their shame and failure; they will lament the pain associated with the life they’ve chosen; but they will never disparage the high. It’s the most sublime state they’ve ever known, they’ll tell you.
I can be sure of none of this, viewing it from without, and it’s been a long time. Only the junkie understands the junkie; a brotherhood like no other. These are my impressions from my limited contact with them; they are necessarily insufficient. Someone once said a poem can only be conveyed by another poem; likewise the junkie’s love. His high can only be experienced, never understood.
This was her funeral.
It was love that consumed her by way of the needle. Some may object to calling it love, but love it is. Blind and total as purest faith. Who among you has sacrificed as the junkie has sacrificed? Who among you has been as alone with their love, as solitary and content with it? Who among you has longed for love so much that you took it as poison?
Her only sin was weakness, if weakness may be called sin. Fatherless and adrift from the start. She never had a chance.
I was working the crowd with nervous energy, in between the service and the burial, as if to speed up the humiliation of a graceless, cut-rate funeral, and looking for what I do not know from these strangers.
I bore down on the two of them, eyeing me with trepidation. They must have recognized me, for how much I resemble my brother. They gave me the same uncomprehending look I’ve long known, like small children confronted with a parent’s twin for the first time. Here was Chris, without the weathering of the years and abuse; I appear to them like a phantasm, or a reproach, or a bad joke. I felt ashamed of my own vitality, in the way I did when my mother was being consumed by cancer. The couple eyed me warily as we spoke.
Later it occurred to me: they might have been complicit in her death. Any of the old crowd there may have been. Any one of them may have given her her last fix. Maybe they felt complicity regardless.
I feel mine.