Joey Holland : When a Ten Cent Cigar Cost a Dime and a Quaalude Cost Three Bucks
Southern Legitimacy Statement: My family never hid our crazy folks; they generally sat on the front porch and enjoyed the breeze just like the family who weren’t crazy. Come to think of it, we all had some crazy mixed in amongst our sanity. My mother cooked red-eye gravy every time she made country ham, just like anybody with southern colloquialisms. We never ever went to Hardee’s, the only fast food in our city in upstate South Carolina. Even after my two sisters and I had weathered Dad’s fall from congressman in the State House to convict in the State Pen, He still took us to eat at Cecil’s fish camp, and Cecil still brought a good shot of moonshine to Dad to drink. He often said, “The doctor said I should have just one drink before dinner,” while shaking a quart Duke’s mayonnaise jar with a pint of Even Williams bourbon and a little water and ice in said jar. Our family still has melodrama even though both my parents are long dead: Did he shoot her or did she shoot herself? Did he really burn the house down? We still have unanswered questions, my sisters and me.
When a Ten Cent Cigar Cost a Dime and a Quaalude Cost Three Bucks
I was fitfully half conscious, thrashing among the befouled bedclothes. I had spent the previous evening injecting Demerol into the veins in my arms and drinking heroic amounts of alcohol in the form of Miller High Life “The Champagne of Beers,” a particularly nasty swill. I had also smoked dozens of cigarettes and eaten a couple of pickled eggs garnished with stewed tomatoes. The human body revolts at such treatment and mine was gleefully coaxing me toward suicide from my confusing, nightmarish dream state. I would begin to swoon toward consciousness, noting a horrid buzzing noise and an even more horrid smell, and then my self-preservation would kick in and sort of knock me out again. This went on for an indeterminate time, until the attack on my senses finally became unbearable, and I awoke, all the way, for real.
The nasty noise was coming from inside my head. Apparently I had burned something out in my brain, and my ears were filled with an uncanny, high-pitched buzzing noise. This was particularly bothersome as, even though I’m not a doctor, I know that phantom noises are usually harbingers of woeful things to come, and often associated with strokes or the loss of bowel control. But before I could address the noise, I had to figure out what that smell was! I looked around my filthy bedroom, trying to locate the source of the horrendous odor. I quickly zeroed in on my lap, which was covered in thick, ropey vomit. At first I thought I had befouled myself, but then, after noticing clumps of what looked like dog hair, I deduced that my dog, Papaya, had puked on me. As was often the case when I awoke in similar circumstances, I must have made another enemy, this time it was my dog. My will to live slipped another notch lower.
Sunlight was slicing into the room through the pulled curtains as I began trying to rise. It looked to be about noon as I struggled to my feet. Trying to stand seemed a dangerous, foolhardy idea, but since I had to get cleaned up, I made the decision to take a leap of faith and straighten up, at least physically. Before I could bathe, though, I had to get something for my head to make that buzzing noise stop, or at least quiet down somewhat. I stumbled toward the kitchen, nearly tripping over my sister, Nan. She looked dead, but upon further inspection, I noticed that she appeared to be in the same shape from which I had just emerged. Already, my superhuman rise from the ashes seemed a distant memory, but the Phoenix in me could still commiserate with my junky sibling.
“Get your sorry ass up,” I whispered, trying to send a subliminal message before stepping over her to stagger into the kitchen to check the fridge for a cool one. There was one Miller. Three or four would have sufficed much better, but one would have to do. There was some question as to whether I would be able to keep it down, but after much struggle, I was able to finish off my eye opener. I was still shivering like a dog shitting razor blades as I made my way to the bathroom for a quick shower. “Papaya must have eaten a rotten animal corpse” I further mused as I adjusted the water temperature to just under boiling.
Nan had vacated her kitchen doorway nest by the time I came out of the bathroom. I could hear her skulking around in her room, opening and then slamming drawers. I was still way too shaky to face the day, so I began looking through the kitchen cabinets for alcohol-laced elixirs. I found about a half bottle of cooking sherry and immediately swilled it down. After a few minutes, I began feeling better. I pigeonholed the suicide idea and went to see if Nan had anything to chase the blues further away.
“Joey, did you take my pot?” Nan whined as I walked into her room, collapsing on her bed.
“I didn’t even know you had any pot, Nan! Seems like I remember you screaming about somebody stealing your pot last night. You know, hoarding all your dope until you’ve done it all and then blaming me for stealing it is not your most redeeming quality. I’ll help you look for it, but I bet you already smoked it all… Bitch!”
I had no patience for any asshole who wouldn’t keep up with her dope, much less a sorry sack of shit of a sister who wouldn’t share it! I loved Nan, though. We thought just alike. We both had an audio loop in our heads that said, “Let’s get high! Let’s get high!” over and over. As we accomplished this mission, the voice became less distinguishable, becoming “Lesss geh high! Lesss geh high!”, but it never stopped.
After combing the house to no avail, we sat down to figure out just how we were going to build our heads for the day.
“You don’t have any roaches?” I asked.
“No, Joey! Can’t you get it through your head that I don’t have any pot? Shit!” The idea of a day without a buzz made Nan exceedingly testy, as it did me, so tempers flared as we tried to salvage the day.
We sat staring vacantly into space, our lower lips quivering, until finally I took a shaky breath and said, “You think Margaret’s got any more ‘Ludes?”
Nan look at me as if I were a refugee from an alien planet, or perhaps an interesting science experiment before crumbling as raw anger seated itself on her face. She screamed, “What fucking difference does it make, asshole? Margaret lives in LAURENS and we’re in Clinton. That’s ten fuckin’ miles! You didn’t go out and buy a car while I was taking a shit, did you?” We had both stood up by now, so we stood nose to nose, glaring at each other and breathing like winded Brahma bulls. Finally I said, “Look, it’s not my fault we don’t have any dope, and it’s not yours either, so why don’t we stop arguing and figure out what we’re gonna do, okay?”
“Well, Margaret won’t let me have any more until I pay her something. She said Conway was pissed off as hell about those she fronted me the other day. Do you have any money?”
I started to scream at her, reversing her answer to the “do you have any roaches” question; the thought of me having any money was every bit as ludicrous as her secreting roaches, but I simply hissed, “No, Nan, I don’t have any money … none!” We searched the house looking for change, coming up with about $2.50
“Well, we can’t call her ’cause her phone’s still out, so we’ll have to take a chance she’ll be there and she’ll front me some more,” Nan said.
“Well,” I observed, “What have we got to lose?”
First we called Hatch’em Head, since he lived close by and. of course, didn’t work, but we didn’t get an answer. “Hatch ’em Head’s probably still over at Doobie’s house. They had a half gallon of moonshine yesterday evening. They’re either passed out, dead, or locked up.” Doobie Ballenger was the only other person we knew who had a car, so we were quickly out of ideas for transport to Margaret’s house.
We again fell into a depressed silence. Nan and I were resourceful dopers, but it looked like this time we were stumped until Nan stated the obvious.
“We could walk.” The sarcasm reeked as I said, “That’s a wonderful idea, Einstein. It’s only about ten miles to Margaret’s! I just drank a bottle of cooking sherry and it’s already turning into vinegar in my stomach. It feels like it’s eating a hole in me as we speak. I can’t walk to Margaret’s!”
“Well, I can’t sit here all day; I’m walking.” With that, Nan started toward the door.
“Ah, shit! Wait, I’ll go with you. Just let me put my flip flops on … and a shirt.” She stood waiting, tapping her foot impatiently, as I prepared myself, after a fashion, and we were soon on our quest for freedom.
It was at least 200 degrees outside, and I was feeling extremely queasy, so by the time we got to the end of Musgrove Street, I was about to faint. We still had about 9.9 miles to go.
“Just leave me here to die.” I moaned, but Nan wisely tugged me along.
“I’m not leaving you in front of the police station, stupid ass. Just come on! You’ll start feeling better in a minute. The sun’ll sweat it out of you.” At first Nan seemed to be enjoying my anguish, but after a few more minutes, she too was feeling the effects of a blistering sun beaming down on the morning after.
We tried to thumb a ride at first, our thumbs pathetically hoisted, grimaces meant to be smiles plastered on our moist faces, but evidently we looked too sorry to deserve a ride, so we quickly gave up and just plodded along, heads hung low, like POWs on the Bataan death march. I began to question my decision to wear flip flops on this arduous trek after they kept making me stumble, sometimes into the road. Maybe it wasn’t just the flip flops; I was beginning to experience the vertigo common to drug abusers on the fourth day of a three day run. It takes plenty of guts, or maybe stupidity, to undertake such adventure, but since I had nothing else to do for the next six months or so, I struggled along beside my equally sorry sister.
By the time we had ventured to the edge of town, walking along the highway toward Laurens, I was spent; I felt something rattling around in my stomach, as if a fossilized tumor had shaken loose from somewhere in my innards.
“I can’t go any further!” I wheezed as I walked into the bushes to vomit for about the fourth time. “Just leave me here and come back for me when you get the pills.”
“If you don’t come on, I won’t give you any. I mean it!”
“Goddamn, Nan! I’m telling you, I can’t go any further! I think I need to go to the hospital!” We stood arguing for a minute, Nan standing over me as I tried to unbuckle, until we noticed a strange-looking vehicle approaching, slowing as it neared.
“Who the hell is that?” Nan asked.
“A better question would be what the hell is that?” I answered. It appeared to be a wooden truck. Upon closer inspection, it was an old van with the back end cut off. Someone had built a little gazebo where the cargo compartment had once lived. This was haphazardly accomplished with scrap lumber, a few nails, and some baling wire. It looked like one of those vehicles prevalent in the classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” It was a singularly odd transport with a perfectly appropriate driver, Perry Penn. Perry was an acquaintance of ours who had done too much acid upon returning from Vietnam and his brain fried in his head. He made it home from the war, but he was still out on the acid trip.
“Ya’ll want a ride? I’m just out shooting some buffalo.” He pointed an old saddle oxford at me and said, “Pow! Just kidding, man. I’m just shooting buffalo.”
“With that shoe?” I asked.
“Anything wrong with that, motherfucker?” Perry was nothing if not volatile. “Of course not, Perry, and yes, we would love a ride.” Nan was glaring at me, but I simply couldn’t entertain the idea of walking another eight or nine miles in the unbearable heat, so we climbed aboard his Dr. Seuss mobile. After Perry instructed us to shoot any buffalo we saw with the other shoe, we proceeded to Margaret’s, making Perry drop us off a block or so from her house.
Margaret appeared to be home, and what was even better, Conway, the horrible old ghoul who lived with her, had apparently taken his ’83 Town Car and vacated the premises. This seemed a favorable portent; maybe there was, in fact, a way to secure our quarry. Margaret greeted us with some trepidation, since we almost never had money and almost always wanted an outlandishly extravagant favor. Margaret was a crazy old woman without a single tooth in her too large head who sold drugs to my sisters and me (and various other white trash hippie types), mostly Quaaludes, Nan’s favorite. She and Nan really hit it off after Nan discovered Margaret to be a kindly goon, a woman easily swayed by garish lies of terrible woes, problems only a few strong mood altering pills could cure. Nan owed Margaret around a million dollars for pills she had talked Margaret into fronting her, and she was fully prepared to shoot for a few more. I had to stand back and admire my intrepid doper sister; she knew how to make ‘em, squirm! I let Nan do the talking as I sidled over to watch. Margaret and I had never had a good rapport. She always had a look of abject terror on her face as she engaged in discourse, as if she had just spied some kind of horrible monster or maybe a deranged killer over your shoulder. When talking with Margaret, I constantly had to fight the urge to spin around to see what was creeping up on me!
I could only catch a portion of the conversation, but it seemed like Margaret was worried that “Conway’ll whoop my goddamn ass” if she fronted Nan any more ‘ludes, but even though I knew it may take a little time, I also knew from experience that Margaret was no match for Nan. I believe Nan told Margaret that our father had beaten our other sister up and she was consequently “bleeding from the rectum” and needed some painkillers to do her until she was able to get to the doctor the next day. I watched as Margaret’s back became increasingly more bowed until she finally led Nan into her house to retrieve the pills. Our day was salvaged, even if it had taken most of the day to save it. Nan came back to me with “four” pills. I’m sure she got at least ten, but half of four was still two and two pharmaceutical Quaaludes was a wonderful start to being set free, so I wasn’t about to complain. We spent a moment to remember that Margaret stood a better than even chance of “gettin’ her goddamn ass whooped” for our freedom before going back to her door to beg for a ride home. She kindly agreed and we were soon whisked back to our house on Musgrove Street in Clinton. I say “whisked”, but her 1974 Vega would only go about 35 mph, and then it sounded like an old rotary phone ringing, so Margaret never whisked anybody anywhere.
By the time we’d gotten home, Mama was in her drinking chair, or as we liked to call it, her “throne of inebriation” with an Old Milwaukee in the 14oz. steel can, and things were back to what we called normal in those day. Since we had a few pills to keep life at bay, we could begin again to pursue the dulling of the senses which made life tolerable. I gazed out at the waning day as the quality of the sunlight slowly gained a resplendent timbre, perfectly matching the effects of the Quaaludes, and everything seemed in tune with the world. I admired the flowering azaleas in the gorgeous, fading day, completely overlooking the edge of the abyss looming just ahead.