Mike Who Used to Do Heroin
Mom walks into the kitchen, heavy on her heels. The walls shake. Tyler and I sit against the cracking walls in our bedroom watching Tommy Boy. Mom’s shadow glides across the kitchen’s faded linoleum floor. As she moves, her shadow looks like it reaches for us.
She leans against the doorframe of our bedroom. Her thick Sicilian hair drapes over her shoulder and rests on her small breasts. “I love this movie,” she says, surprised though she knew we were watching it.
In the movie, Tommy and Richard sing along to R.E.M. on the radio: It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Mom cackles from the back of her throat, fading out into the whimpers that sound like she’s crying. She sips from her white coffee mug.
“What’s in your mug?” I ask. Every time, I give her a chance to be honest. I know it’s the vodka she keeps hidden under her bed like a teen hiding liquor from her parents.
“Water.” She swirls the liquor like a glass of wine, which Mom says she can’t drink because it makes her angry. She can’t drink Southern Comfort either. Last time, she ran through a glass door, bits of glass sticking out of her arms casting little prisms on the walls. The sunlight from the rear kitchen window reflects off the vodka in the mug and glares onto her olive skin.
She tells us her neighbor Mike is coming over. Sip. “You’ll like him. He’s nice.”
Her cellphone rings in her jean pocket. She steps into the kitchen. I listen to her conversation though she doesn’t try to hide it. “I can come and get it today… Well I don’t have the money right now… I need it today…” She lowers her voice and says something about not being able to do “that” because “her kids are here.” She washes dishes, letting the pots and pans clang and clink against the bowls and plates. “Bullshit,” she grunts.
Someone knocks on the door. The stairs creak under the gentle steps.
“Boys!” she calls, but we’re sitting next to her.
“No, no,” he says. “Where are they?” His voice is like a pillow, the kind in hotels that sink and swallow you. I want to lay my head on his mouth. He stands in the doorway in a white t-shirt, ripped jeans, and work boots. His fair skin glows in the sunbeam from the rear window.
“Hey, guys,” he says. He scratches his scruffy cheek. I immediately feel drawn to him, maybe because I think he could rescue us today. I want to keep looking at him, the blue eyes underneath his dark brow.
Mom introduces us to Mike. “He used to do heroin,” she says. “Heroin.”
“Helena,” he says under his breath. “I don’t know if that’s actually appropriate—”
“No, they’re old enough.” Sip. “Heroin,” she says. “Can you believe it? Not even I fuck with that shit.”
He hangs his head and looks into my eyes as if to apologize, because I know what heroin is. We shouldn’t know about drugs. We shouldn’t have a mom addicted to cocaine. We shouldn’t know what heroin is. Mike slouches, sinking back into the hole he probably crawls out of to enter the world. I don’t think he’s high right now.
Mike says Tommy Boy is one of his favorite movies.
“I love when the deer wakes up in the backseat,” I say.
Tyler quickly adds he loves when they’re singing in the car and crying.
Mike says that’s his favorite part too. He makes a motion to sit on the bed beside me, but Mom catches him.
“Let’s go outside,” she says. She guides everyone toward the door, but first takes her mug into her bedroom.
I sit on the banister across from Mike and Mom and peel away the pale paint. They sit in the chairs. Mike places his Sam Adams on the coaster on the small table between them.
I study him. I’d never known anyone who does heroin, so I want to know.
“What’s heroin like?” I ask.
Mike glances back and forth between Mom and me as he stammers. She flicks her wrist and nods. Her eyes and lips droop in the corners.
“Go ahead,” she says, probably bitchier than she means to.
“I don’t think this is something that we should be talking about,” Mike says. He leans back and rubs his hands on his knees through the holes in his jeans.
I start to say I understand when Mom interjects: “No, they need to know.” She motions Tyler and me over to stand in front of her. Her breath smells like she just woke up. Tyler covers his nose. “Listen,” she says, “Mike did heroin because he liked it.”
He sighs and shakes his head. I feel bad for asking about it.
She grabs my forearm and digs her fingers between my muscles and bones. It hurts. I wish she wouldn’t touch me. She grips Tyler’s arm too. He even says, “Ow, stop,” but she doesn’t.
“It’s super addictive, and you can go to jail.”
“Can’t you go to jail for cocaine too?” I ask.
“Then why do you do it?”
“I’m not addicted to it.”
“Then why do you do it?” Louder this time.
“We’re not talking about me,” she says. “We’re talking about Mike and heroin.”
Mike attempts to change the subject, but Mom puts her hand in his face.
“They need to know this.” She pulls us closer and I can see her pupils getting bigger and bigger. Her breath makes me nauseous. “Mike was in jail for seven years. His brother is an attorney and wouldn’t defend him in court.”
Aunt Kathy has been to jail five times. Grandmom and Grandpa have both been arrested. All Mom’s friends have been locked up. I imagine going to visit Mom in jail, sitting across from her at a small table, watched by a guard. I think of her gray uniform and blue slip-ons, the way she’d rattle off things to tell people on the outside.
“Seven years,” Mom says again.
Mike lowers his head. I want to hug him. I rear my eyes slowly back to Mom whose head bobbles like a charmed snake. “Why haven’t you been to jail?” I ask.
“People like Aunt Kathy go to jail, not me.” She does the same drugs as Aunt Kathy, but Mom doesn’t think she’s going to get caught. I don’t think any addict does.
She lets us go, and we sit back on the banister.
I ask Mike if he’s married or has a girlfriend.
He tells me no, but he doesn’t seem embarrassed by it. Mom isn’t a good wife and Aunt Kathy is a crazy girlfriend. As far as I know, addicts only care about themselves, but Mike seems different, like maybe if someone cared enough about him he would get clean.
Mom suggests Mike show us his apartment, but Mike seems unsure.
“Okay, well you go do that,” Mom says. “I’ll wait upstairs.”
Mom slams the door behind her. Tyler and I are left alone with Mike who used to do heroin while Mom probably snorts a line or calls a drug dealer. He claps and keeps his hands together as if sending up a prayer, then says, “Well, I guess we should go over then.”
Mike opens his apartment door, which leads to another set of stairs. The floors are infused with beer. Trash bags full of bottles and cans pile up on the steps. We step over loose bottles and swat flies buzzing around us. Flies remind me of maggots, which makes me think of corpses, which makes me think of Hell. I think I must be close to it. Tyler squeezes his nose.
“Haven’t gotten around to taking out the trash,” he said. I imagine Mike wobbling down the stairs with a trash bag in one hand and a beer in the other. He slips on the edge of the step and falls backward, maybe slides down a few. The beer falls out of his hand and tumbles down the stairs and empties on the floor. He whispers, “Fuck it,” throwing the trash aside and leaving the bottle at the base of the stairway.
A pale blue haze shrouds the apartment. The carpets haven’t ever been vacuumed. Dishes pile over the sink. Green and white molding food crusts the dishware. The trash in the kitchen pours over onto the sticky linoleum. Flies congregate around the filth.
The bathroom lights are yellow. Brown stains run down the walls and toilet like a crack house billboard. Mildew and sour towels. I can’t take the smell anymore. I imagine these are the kinds of houses Mom goes to get her coke. She must visit people who live like they’ve given up.
He leads us down the hallway. He flicks on the dim light to his bedroom. A mattress sits on the floor with a small, cardboard box acting as an end table. His floor is a sea of dirty clothes, mostly discolored whites that either haven’t been washed or haven’t been put away. On the cardboard table, a thin syringe, a spoon, and a lighter wobble under our footsteps.
“Nothing extraordinary to see here,” he says.
“Can we go?” I ask. Tyler nods his head.
Mike points toward the door and places his hand on my back. I wish he would take both hands and hoist me up to him.
We leave, careful not to step on bottles or overturn the heaping trash. The outside seems freer and safer than before. We walk back up the sidewalk to Mom’s porch where she sits in her chair, finishing the vodka from the white mug.
I want to tell Mom what I saw in his bedroom. I want to tell Mom that Mike is still slamming it, but I can’t. I can’t tell her, not when Mike could save us.
“Come on, boys,” Mom says, stumbling toward the car parked along the curb.
Mike follows her. “Helena, I don’t think you should be driving.”
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“We are going to pick something up for Mom,” she says. She only calls herself “Mom” when she’s drunk. She likes hearing herself referred to as a mother.
“I want to stay here,” I say. I want to clutch onto Mike, to hide behind the trunk of his legs.
“Maybe it’s good if they stay here with me,” Mike says.
She stands with her hands on her hips and rolls her eyes.
“Is this about the guy you talked to on the phone earlier?” I ask. She doesn’t answer, but I know that means yes. “Then why do we have to go?”
“Because I’m your mom and I want you with me.”
Mike moves in between the waves of our voices. “Why don’t you just go, and I’ll finish Tommy Boy with the kids?”
She stomps up to the porch and grabs me by the arm like an iron cuff, knowing that Tyler would follow. He does. I struggle against her, but I can’t get free. “Get in the fucking car,” she says. I turn back to Mike. He holds his arms out like Jesus in stained glass, but he doesn’t move for us. I get in the car. Cross my arms. I hate her. I hate her. Tyler’s lips press together. He doesn’t say anything.
Mike leaps from the sidewalk. “You can’t take them,” he says. I love that he’s trying to keep us safe, but he’s not doing enough. If we got out of the car, Mom would wrestle us back in. Mike would have to be rough, but he won’t. She never wants us away from her unless she’s handling business she doesn’t want us to see. She thinks being away from us makes her a bad mom.
“Fuck off,” she says. She starts the engine and shifts it to drive.
Mike watches from the outside with the same sad eyes as before but lets us go. I watch him in the side-view mirror with a feeling in my gut I won’t see him again. He kicks the curb with the toe of his boot, like beating up a body. He covers his mouth, then slides his hand down his neck like he’s going to choke himself.
Mom covers one eye with her left hand. She says it gets rid of the double vision.
“Mike is still doing heroin,” I say.
She says she knows. “That’s what addiction is,” she says. “He got out of prison and had nothing and no one to come back to but heroin. That’s just how it is.”
I imagine Mike lying on his bed injecting the heroin into the fold of his arm. I imagine the deep breath he’d take as the drug rushes through him, the calm that overtakes him, the numbing of his regret over letting us go. I wish Mike, Tyler and I were in my clean, white bedroom watching the rest of Tommy Boy, the three of us singing, It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
Andrew Hahn has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has been featured in Crab Creek Review, Rappahannock Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Crab Fat Magazine, and Lunch, among others. His chapbook God’s Boy was published in fall 2019 by Sibling Rivalry Press.