The only time I’ve ever k-holed was on my twenty sixth birthday. I’d been putting away a pint of Seagram’s on the barefoot walk (the pavement was hot, it was August) to Cliff’s house. We went up in his attic, put on a movie and started getting high. Now that I think about it, the Kid was there too– a drug dealer who must have been fresh out of highschool, already harboring an opiate addiction. It’s embarrassing to refer to a child drug dealer by their name. 

An old lady with dementia was being projected through the air across the sweaty attic onto a large screen. Aside from the heat, it was a nice set up. I’d have rather been doing coke, but I wasn’t buying. Cliff started rolling around on the floor, making strange sounds, like he was throat singing, interspersed with bursts of laughter, which he manipulated the pitch of as if by means of a digital slider on a computer screen with a corded mouse with a scroller wheel and a soft ball in its belly that you could free by removing a disc of plastic. 

I disappeared for about an hour. A tiny bit of ketamine, like a kiss on the cheek, near your ear, from a beautiful woman who’s finally done with you, is much more enjoyable than line after line, the hole, the railing and being railed by. Maybe my body just doesn’t agree with it. I’ve struggled most of my life with sleep paralysis, which feels enough like a free k-hole without the guilt. They should tell kids in school that drugs are just lesser versions of things they’ve already felt. 

The old lady howled at her daughter on the screen, the Kid sat in the corner of the room, his eyes glazed, his mouth open. Cliff, seated in lotus, wobbled around like a bowling pin and the screen darkened and the credits rolled and I left without a word.

When I stepped out into the front yard, it felt like dawn, not twilight. I smoked half a cigarette wandering through the grass, chatting with the cat we called Mama, who liked to stalk near the base of a massive, healthy pine tree. A lot of cats roamed through his neighborhood. The houses were old, yards large, and across the street stretched industrial garages and parking lots, safe places for cats. I flicked the ember of the cigarette and stuck the rest behind my ear. I got in my car and remembered my phone, which had been waiting for me, patiently, still plugged into wires like an IV drip.

I stared, perplexed, excited and sobered up by a text message from an unknown number using my hometown’s area code. I read the message several times. It was from my friend Clay, who I’d not heard from in several years, significant years at that– the late teens into the twentieth year of the new millennia, where not, maybe, so many things had changed in the physical world, but in the web of overlapping, intersecting lives and realities, the sky had turned from blue to red, and where lush green foliage covered trees had once towered in abundance, now, tendrilled roots crawled towards an inverted sun, still clotted with black soil and loam. 

I’d worried about Clay and had sent him a lot of Hail Marys over those years, even after I’d been convinced I’d never hear from him again, usually via Facebook messenger, usually in the middle of the night, drunk, stoned, or lonely, all three, swimming, or rather lurking in the memory pond, thinking of images and days from innocent times with only my nose and eyes above the murky water while mosquitos and locusts swarmed and screamed. Clay wished me a happy birthday and said in his message that he was back in our hometown. Soon enough, I was too. I moved back into my parents house on Halloween night. 

The pandemic, and its consequences, had sucked my academic and creative lives dry, and foolishly I stayed enrolled in college, participating in online courses via Zoom from what had been my youngest sister’s old bedroom. My old bedroom had been in the corner of the basement, and upon returning to the house, I discovered a fine layer of mildew growing on the floor down there. The house seemed small when there were six of us living in it, and then large once it was down to just my mother and I. 

I don’t remember exactly whether that youngest sister (who was living across town) and I had taken the family dog to be put down before or after I finally reunited with Clay but it must have been around the same time. On the evening before the dog’s death, I took him for a ride and bought him McDonald’s. The next morning, crying in a sterile, hushed room, I held his paw and felt his heart through his chest and watched his eyes as the vet sucked his life from him like a vampire. My sister and I, through snotty masks, left, returning to the family house to see our mother who couldn’t bear the experience we’d just had. 

There was snow on the ground when Clay and I hiked the bluffs of Hixon forest and we talked a little about our lives, but mostly about books and movies, the cornerstones of our lifelong friendship. After moving back home, he’d taken a job at the manufacturing center for Kwik Trip (the gas station industrial complex that was crawling through Wisconsin like a fungus) driving a forklift, working nights. I told him a little about school and my misadventures as a west coast pot farmer. When we parted, he gave me a late Christmas gift: a wrapped copy of Cathedrals by Raymond Carver, which I’d read not more than a year before. I was happy to receive it, though, as I’m a book junkie with a hard habit.

I stayed in my hometown, more or less, for two years. Halfway through the first the family home was sold. My mother moved into a small house less than half a mile away. I moved into Bob’s house. Bob is a retired creative writing professor who’d helped my dad out when he was a kid. Bob moved from that house into an apartment into a “home” in rapid succession. In the lobby of the “home” there was a bird cage taller than me filled with little round colorful birds that I’d never seen or heard before. Over weeks, I packed up his belongings and helped move them into storage, and he let me stay in the house while he prepared to sell it. It was old and big and I felt comfortable there. 

During those two years I met Fawn and we experimented with love. My whole life, I’ve been a better friend and lover than a romantic partner and I am haunted by my failings. One night, at Bob’s house, sick as I’d ever been, and drunk, I lashed out at her. I remember pitching my phone at the wall like a baseball and little else– somehow, it still worked the next morning when I found it after an hour of delirious searching and called her to apologize. I remember that day, in the clutches of the coronavirus and guilt, seeing the room around me through my closed eyelids and feeling seriously like I might really die this time. Fawn and I defused the bomb that had already exploded over the next week and decided to travel to Mexico together. I packed my belongings into my mother’s shed and said goodbye to Bob’s house. Two or three weeks later, in an ancient bookstore Coyoacan, I bought a copy of The Long Goodbye by Chandler for Clay, who gave us rides to and from the airport, bookending our trip. 

During those two years, I took a job at an indoor hemp grow op in the old shoe factory on the northside of town. Since I had growing experience in California and Washington, they let me work the hours I wanted until just before last Christmas when they laid me off. I listened to countless audiobooks in that second floor basement full of unhappy, mutant plants. The soil was fucked and cycle after cycle, the plants suffered as the head grower scrambled in slow motion to fix some mysterious problem, causing more problems than he solved. I watched him bully the other workers, once bad enough that one of them quit. I saw many massacres of plants, old and young, often under green lights when the plants were tricked into sleep, with the smell of fish and manure strong in the air. The work I’d done out west had been outdoors or in greenhouses, on real farms. My time in that factory was like one long green night with black shadows and artificial sunlight, kind of how I imagine life after the next significant nuclear event might taste. 

I developed a kratom habit during these years. After an eight hour shift at the grow up, I’d feel almost poisoned and exhausted. My hometown is an alcoholic cesspool, but I had no one I liked drinking with. Most of my close friends had moved away, and Clay was sober. I’d put a heaping spoonful of kratom in a mug and pour hot water over it, over and over until I entered the zone, the fun–a pseudo opiate state where I’d nod in and out of dreams and consciousness. With my eyelids closed, I’d often see repeating patterns of fan leaves from the plants at work mixed with the plastic trellis netting. The hallways between the grow rooms. Perlite eggs mixed with black soil. Over time, I started to wonder what the long term effects of taking this job might be. I started developing a theory– I’d helped kill a lot of plants. What if I was cursing myself, piling up noxious karma by working this job? Digging deeper and deeper with each passing week into this antisocial zone, wasting the daylight hours. My hands were stained, dirt perpetually under my fingernails. When I was lucky, I’d escape into a dream, or even a nightmare, vivid and fantastic enough that I could forget about my life.

While initially pissed off to be laid off, I quickly sobered up– I had no business living in my hometown. I loved Fawn, but not in the right way. The circumstances of our lives didn’t add up to a foundation that lives could intertwine upon. I loved my family and I was worried about my mother’s health, but I wasn’t doing her much good as an empty shell, lurking in and out of consciousness in the spare bedroom. Lastly, I loved seeing movies with Clay. 

During those two years, some guy from one of our hometown’s wealthiest families moved back and bought The Rivoli, a historic and decaying movie theater downtown complete with a stucco castle facade, and started showing old movies there. This is where Clay and I got along best, in front of the screen, whispering jokes and trivia in the dark. He’d go silent for weeks at a time, disappearing again, but we’d come back together and happily watch movies, most of which we’d seen before. This kept banal chatter to a minimum. Occasionally, we’d camp or hike or take a long drive to see a movie at an IMAX theater, or an arthouse. But watching movies at The Rivoli was pure relief. Escaping together, side by side. In seventh grade, our school had taken a field trip there for an end of the year double feature. Halfway through the second movie, we were escorted by confused ushers into the cellar due to a tornado warning (even though it seemed impossible for tornadoes to cross the Mississippi River valley.) At least a hundred kids were packed into the dripping dungeon, buzzing with nervous excitement. I remember worrying about whether or not my dog might be in my backyard. 

After getting laid off, I started selling plasma. Every other time, it seemed the nurse? technician? would miss my vein with the needle and give me a hematoma, blocking me from coming back until the bruise receded to less than two inches. I didn’t mind selling plasma. I liked the variety of characters who came through, but the workers I was more skeptical of. Most of them seemed to be kids, younger than me. There were a few elders– my favorite was a middle aged woman with a Freddy Krueger sticker on her plastic visor. She always found the vein, first shot. When I mentioned giving plasma to family or friends, they’d often say: I hate needles! I could never do that. Who likes needles? I’d think. It’s not fun, but neither is work. Once, I asked a young woman, a screener who’d weigh me and poke my finger before I could give blood, whether anyone she worked with liked needles, liked poking people with them.

“You’d be surprised,” she told me. 

The last time I tried to sell plasma before leaving for Portland, I got sick of waiting around and when I was heading for the door, I saw Clay sitting by the doors. Sheepishly, he told me he was a little embarrassed about it, but he’d been selling plasma for the last month or so as well, trying to get together some extra money for the holidays. I was in a grouchy mood from waiting around, but I was relieved to see him before hitting the road as I had no plans to return. He told me his heart rate had been too fast to donate so they’d told him to wait for ten minutes and to get screened again. We chatted about our experiences with the place. Making sure none of the workers were too close, he asked me if I’d had my blood drawn by a kid named Jared. I racked my brain and told him I wasn’t sure. 

“He’s kind of tall, with red hair and glasses… He used to work at Kwik Trip with me, until he got fired. Rumor has it, he got arrested for childporn,” Clay told me. “But whenever he’s here, he tries to talk with me like we’re old buddies.” I tried not to laugh as I imagined meek and sheepish Clay trying to get out of small talk with a pedophile. We said an awkward goodbye, and within the hour, I was driving West. 

A huge storm was inbound and it was almost thirty hours to Portland straight through, which was almost impossible without the right kind of pharmaceutical help. I’d made it through all of Minnesota and the rest of the daylight before the snow began to fall. I drove all through the night along I-80. Hundreds of these miles, the road was covered with crusty snow and ice and I’d drive half speed as my front two tires were nearly bald. It was almost five AM when I finally stopped for the night, pulling into a rest area outside Sioux Falls, crawling through almost a foot of snow, and snow was still falling. Sioux Falls, where in the first two weeks of 2023 alone, 28 people would be reported missing. My phone told me it was -25 degrees Fahrenheit without factoring in the wind. I cracked the windows, because after years of sleeping in my van, I knew that worse than a little extra cold was the condensation. I crawled into the back, got in my sleeping bag, and watched the snow fall until I began to dream of a summer evening, hot and humid and gray. 

I held a leash– my dog was alive again, and we were walking down a dirt road that gave way to broken pieces of pavement and boulders and the ends of a trickling stream. We followed the stream as it began to flow with more vigor. I wondered where Clay was. The stream took us uphill and into the woods and I remembered that we were ascending the bluffs that overlooked my hometown to an old quarry that had been abandoned my entire lifetime, a great place to have fires and drink beer and not worry about police. Sure enough, I saw a massive bonfire ahead, through the dark silhouettes of trees. My dog began to whine. His legs didn’t work right and he rarely went for walks, let alone hikes, so I picked him up and carried him. I kept quiet, moving through gnarls of thorny honey suckle with the practiced grace of a curious, hungry coyote, and my dog panted by my ear. I got close enough to see that the bonfire was surrounded by a dozen or so people in white lab coats and plastic visors. They stood like the numbers of a clock around the fire. Somehow, the floor of the quarry was filled with snow, even though I was drenched and sticky with sweat. It was snow that was melting into the stream, that’s why the stream seemed strange and unfamiliar. On top of a boulder in the six o’clock position, with his back to me, stood who must have been Jared. Thank god, Clay’s not here, I thought. Jared raised a bottle of brown blood into the air and above his head before bringing it to his lips while his colleagues hooped and hollered. After drinking, he poured the rest of the bottle into the fire where it hissed and sizzled and gave birth to a plume of sparkling emerald smoke that grew into the sky where it mingled with the falling embers in front of pregnant, purple clouds. 

— Evan is a 28-year-old artist living in Fairfield, Iowa. He is on Twitter and Instagram @evanmcconahay

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