Junky

by Jason Tougaw

Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life. –William Burroughs, Junky

When my biological father died in October, I learned that the state of California takes biology seriously. California has that much in common with William Burroughs, perhaps America’s most famous junky.

My father was a junky too. His name was Charles–Charlie to my mom and her friends. He’d been shooting heroin into his bloodstream since before I was born. His absence was an inexorable presence when I was growing up. He was often in prison. When he wasn’t, he’d sometimes get in touch, but more often he wouldn’t. He never acted like a father. We rarely met face to face, but we haunted each other’s lives. So it was a shock to learn that the state of California named me the person with authority over my father’s remains, because 50% of his DNA lived in me. According to the state, I was next of kin, more “next” than his mother or sister. My signature was necessary for the “final disposition” of his dead body. This was statespeak for what would be done with the body.

While the form was startlingly simple, it took a few readings to figure out that “Assignment of the Right to Control the Disposition” meant I was giving my grandmother the right to decide what would happen to her son’s body.

Genes are not nothing. When I met my father a few years ago, after nearly thirty years, I learned that many of my mannerisms were his. He looked like a cross between his father and me. His shoulders stooped a little, suggesting a spine bent like mine. He was soft spoken and smart. He was wry in a dark, dry way that I recognized. I have some of him in me, and he had some of me in him. But genes aren’t everything, either. My father insisted on refusing social graces. He fought with people. He seemed to insist on making others uncomfortable. He broke into houses and stole shit to get money for drugs. He spent a lifetime resenting his own father and redeemed himself by helping to nurse him through a long series of illnesses. This is part of what convinced me to see him, after ignoring his sporadic letters for several years. When we finally met, he said to me, “Just before he died, I found out my father was not who I thought he was.”

I’m not sure who my father was, but I found out he had died in a way that was as indirect and convoluted as my relationship with him. Dave, my partner, got an email from my cousin’s husband, with a phone number, asking me to call, about a “family matter.” He forwarded it to me, and I hesitated over it for a couple of hours. It was puzzling. My cousin had contact information for me. My grandmother had my phone number. None of them had ever met Dave. Why did he get this email? I don’t know my father’s family well, even though they’d always been kind to me. We had a formal, intermittent relationship. They couldn’t have been more different from the people who raised me. Where my family went to happy hour, they went to church. Where my family listened to records, they read books and attended operas. Where my family lived from day to day, they had jobs, pensions, and insurance plans. I still don’t know why they contacted Dave rather than finding me directly, but somehow the hole in the story was typical.

I dialed the number, then another, then another. I got the story in pieces, from my cousin and her husband, my father’s sister and her husband, and finally my grandmother. He’d been found dead in the parking lot of a drugstore on Sunday. It was Monday night when I received the email. I’d been in LA on Sunday, just a couple of hours from the parking lot where he died. I’d debated whether or not to see him that weekend, not knowing it was to be the last weekend of his life, and had decided against it. It turns out it wouldn’t have been possible–or that if I had seen him, I’d have stumbled into the degrading scene of his final binge. I wondered how many of these degrading scenes he’d lived through.

This is the parking lot where they found my father’s body. It’s about a thirty-minute drive from where he lived with my Grandmother. The last time anybody had seen him, he’d been on foot. We’ll never know how he got there, or why.

A few months previous, my grandmother had found him lying on the carpet with a needle in his arm. The story was that he’d been clean. He’d been living with my grandmother for several years now. He wrote me letters addressed to “my only child.” The letters helped me realize that I’d been just as much a ghost in his life as he was in mine. But they also struck me as manipulative and defensive, some blaming his own father for his addiction, none acknowledging much responsibility. He never said, “I wish I’d made sure you had a home and food. I wish I’d sent you to college or paid for school clothes.” Mostly the letters were about him. Finally, I’d relented and established some contact with him. I’d spent a long afternoon with him. We’d exchanged odd letters and gifts. I wrote a memoir about my hippie childhood. I wrote about visiting him in prison as a kid, about the time he brought me an electric race track for Christmas when I was eight, about the year-and-a-half during my twenties when he reunited with my mother, moved in with her, and eventually started beating her up again. I felt a complicated mix of guilt and satisfaction about using him as material. The writing became a big part of a relationship that had never been mutual. We were both having it, but not together.

It seemed likely that my father had OD’d. He’d had a seizure a couple of weeks prior. Since then he’d been drinking heavily, which everybody said was uncharacteristic. My mom’s husband heard that he’d been contacting old friends of theirs looking for drugs. On the Friday before he died, his sister’s husband had driven nearly an hour to pick him up and take him to a court appearance. He’d been arrested drunk driving. If drinking was uncharacteristic, why would this have happened? Maybe he wasn’t drunk, but high. It was a question I never got around to asking.

I did learn that when my uncle arrived, he found my father so drunk he could hardly stand. He dragged him to court anyway, but security wouldn’t let him through the door. He dragged him home, where he stumbled off down the street, refusing the pleas of both my uncle and grandmother. They hadn’t been able to stop him. He never came home and they finally went searching for him on Sunday. No luck. When they returned, the got the call from the coroner. Cause of death was pending. All they had–we had–was the image of him lying in a parking lot for who knows how long.

My cousin’s husband said he was sorry to break the news to me, but they needed my signature. That was the reason for the email. My grandmother had wanted to send me a letter with the news. She’s old-fashioned in lots of ways. There’d be no funeral. Nobody wanted to honor or memorialize him. So to her mind, there was no hurry. But there was some hurry, because state bureaucracy required my signature to authorize what the forms called the “final disposition” of my father’s body. They wanted me to tell them what to do with the body that had given me half my DNA.  My mom was furious that his family asked this of me. But to my surprise, I was glad.

He’d be cremated. No need to embalm. This much was clear to everybody. As you can see, the form was weirdly simple for such an emotionally complicated transaction.  All I had to do was fill it out, in hurried, shaky ink, print it, sign it, scan it, and fax it to the mortuary where his body lay. It was the first time I’d ever had any control over anything about our relationship. I was spooked. I was mourning more heavily than I’d expected, feeling a lifelong absence that had defined my life. Friends sent well-meaning condolences expressing vague understanding that I must be experiencing a complicated grief. The form gave me a ritual house for feelings that were hard to name.

The rituals and cultural narratives that shepherd people through grief mostly didn’t apply. As in life, the scripts and routines didn’t fit. I’d always had to make these up. It was work to grow up out of step with the expectations of everybody around me. So many things normally taken for granted had to be made up–how to answer the question, “what does your father do?,” for example. But the work had a payoff. It required me to be active in figuring out who I wanted to be. It was liberating in the sense that I was never constrained much by rules or expectations. Being gay, for example, was easier because of it.

As a kid, without realizing what I was doing, I started a lifelong practice of using books and music as a surrogate for the conventional stories and rituals my family had sidestepped.

In the weeks after my father’s death, I let a song tell me how to feel. I listened  to Death Cab for Cutie’s “Styrofoam Plates” on continuous rotation. I played it on loop in the car. I listened to it on headphones at work. I blasted it when I was home alone. I’m grateful to Ben Gibbard for writing a song that feels like the mourning I needed, a song about a guy who was “not quite a father, but a donor of seeds to a poor single mother.” Gibbard’s lyrics–“a bastard in life, thus a bastard in death”–do a pretty good job of articulating the anger threaded through this kind of grief. When these give way to the noise of furious drums and jangly guitars, I feel it in my internal organs. I mean this literally. It hurt in a physical and notably pleasurable way that must be what Aristotle meant by catharsis. That noise is a miraculous musical container, able to absorb the variety of feelings that fall outside standard issue grief: shame, fury, pride, attraction, repulsion, reluctant understanding.

My father’s death certificate sanitizes his life–the crime that infuriates Ben Gibbard enough to sing “You’re a disgrace to the concept of family / A fact the priest won’t divulge in his homily.” My father had worked intermittently as a welder, but not for decades. “Junky” would be a more accurate “usual occupation” and heroin a more accurate “profession.”

The sound turns my discomfort into pleasure. Isn’t that what heroin does? I think about the fact that sound seems a more apropos representative of my grief than all the adjectives in the world. It’s felt more than understood. I wonder if there’s a sound or smell that could help me understand what heroin felt like for my father. But that’s one more question without an answer. My father specialized in littering my life with these.

Because my father was silent on the topic of heroin, I found myself returning to proud junky William Burroughs, philosopher of heroin. I wanted to understand what it was like to be my father, what life feels like for a junky. My father was too defensive to share any love for the drug with me, but I know that he must have felt it, and I detected a thread of philosophy in his somewhat inchoate and childishly defensive letters.

While the state of California’s s conception of biology is simple, William Burroughs had a more expansive–and fantastical–notion of the addict’s relationship to his body. The state focused on the stability of genes. Heredity gave me authority over my father’s dead body. Burroughs focused on the mutability of our physical bodies, whose cells continuously die and are replaced by others. He believed the fluctuations of cellular life were attuned to the junk habit:

I have never regretted my experience with drugs. I think I am in better health now as a result of using junk at intervals than I would be if I had never been an addict. When you stop growing you stop dying. An addict never stops growing. Most users periodically kick the habit, which involves shrinking of the organism and replacement of the junk dependent cells. A user is in a continual state of shrinking and growing in his daily cycle of shot-need for shot completed.

It may have been the opiates that drove Burroughs’s physiological fantasy. It’s hard to imagine it’d be supported by hard data. If I had to guess, I’d say he probably based it on shreds of medical research, biological theory, and conversations he had when he was high. (If any readers know more about the source of Burroughs’s claims for junky health, I’d love to hear about it.)

In any case, the view of a contrarian–molded outside conventional stories or rituals–can be instructive. Burroughs accepts junky as an identity, but he rejects the stigma. We accept the daily use of some drugs: coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. But not heroin. Junkies, as I learned from my father and many of his friends, can live for decades shooting up just about every day. They’re not all dying young or wasting away. You can’t necessarily tell, unless you’ve developed junky radar through experience. If they’re poor, they’ll lie, cheat, and steal their way through life. They’ll disappoint you. Over and over again. But their bodies do sustain themselves, if they don’t fuck up and OD.

Burroughs’s isn’t a life I’d hold up as an example for how to move through the world. He shot and killed his wife in a fit of romantic destruction, after all. But he was a kind of teacher, one who has inspired and instructed an impressive number of people. Even his descriptions of the daily life of a junky in books like Junky and Naked Lunch are mostly degrading. But his general theory of junky life does seem to speak for a group of people whose desires and points of view are mostly derided and ignored. And many of his reflections on junky life speak to a burden of consciousness we all feel. It’s not easy to find yourself in a body, knowing it belongs to  you, aware that you only sort of know what makes you you, that you know very little about how the cells in the body you move through the world collaborate to make you distinct from everybody else. A lot of our storytelling is about humans tussling with this burdensome consciousness, which makes us feel like we know ourselves but reminds us that we have no idea how we got here or what it really means to be alive:

Junk is a cellular equation that teaches us facts of general validity. I have learned a great deal from junk: I have seen my life measured out in eyedroppers of morphine solution. I experienced the agonizing deprivation of junk sickness, and the pleasure of relief when junk-thirsty cells drank from the needle. Perhaps all pleasure is relief. I have learned the cellular stoicism that junk teaches the user. I have seen a cell full of sick junkies silent and immobile in separate misery. They knew the pointlessness of complaining or moving. They knew that basically no one can help anyone else. There is no key, no secret someone else has that he can give you. 

These junkies are basically struggling with the same fear and pain Adam and Eve discovered after they shared that famed apple. They find the key, eat it, and learn its secret: there’s no key. Hence the strife and suffering documented in the rest of that enormous book. In both cases, new input into the body delivers a new experience of the world. Writing accomplishes this too. If life without my father taught me anything, it was how to live without a key. Pleasure, to my mind, is relief from the strain of knowing how much we can’t know about what it means to be alive. This means looking for the input that will help us experience more joy than fear, more engagement than retreat. For my father, heroin must have made retreat feel like joy, for a while. Burroughs is certainly right that junk is a way of life. It was for my father. And death is part of life. For those still alive, death of a loved one is new input. It ajdusts our relationship to the world in unpredictable ways.

The original coroner’s report listed my father’s cause of death as “pending.” This amendment revises line 107A: “Acute alcohol and chlordiazepoxide intoxication.”

When his cause of death was finally pronounced–through an amendment to the original coroner’s report–it was listed as “acute alcohol and chlorodiazepoxide” (a relative of Valium, with longer lasting effects, used to treat anxiety and withdrawal, also known as Librium). Nobody knows where he got the Librium. But, really, it was the heroin that killed him. The seizure, the alcohol, the Librium, and the parking lot were set pieces in junk as a way of life. So are the half-answered questions that have lingered since the final disposition of his body. So is the song I borrowed from somebody else’s life, input that provided some relief from the images of his degrading last couple of days.

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