Fifty Miles by Sheryl St. Germain

*Featured Image: “Nuclear Winter” by Meredith Lindgren

Fifty Miles

by Sheryl St. Germain

Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
–Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven”

In the early morning hours of December 9, 2014, a widespread river of fog descended over North Texas, surrounding the Dallas–Fort Worth metropolis and lingering into the afternoon hours. Seen from above, the fog seemed to swirl into itself, clotted in what looked like an endless sea that flooded the area, so thick that only tops of the tallest buildings in the skyline pierced it. Dozens of flights were cancelled at DFW. A dense fog advisory was issued, and newscasters warned that driving conditions were dangerous. In fact, the fog was so impenetrable in the morning that visibility was calculated at zero, making it almost impossible to drive.

It was into this fog that my son, Gray, drove that morning, headed about fifty miles northwest of his apartment in Dallas to the small town of Decatur. He had called in sick that morning to his job, although he’d told his girlfriend, with whom he lived, that he was going to work. A drive that normally takes a little over an hour would have taken much longer that morning as he plowed through a fog as nasty as any he might have ever driven through in his life. I don’t know if he would have listened to the traffic or weather advisories, or even paid attention to them if he did.

He was driving to Decatur to visit his friend Bryce, a fellow musician and former bandmate with whom he still occasionally collaborated, and who was known in the local music scene for his woozy electronic dance beats. Gray had told me that he admired Bryce as a musician and composer, and I know he felt a deep connection with him through the electronic music they both loved and composed.

Bryce was also an admitted heroin addict, who seems to have made his living selling drugs. Gray, who had completed a thirty-day rehab nine months earlier, had been staying away from him since his release because Bryce had been his source for drugs. In February, at Bryce’s house, Gray had nearly died from a binge of meth, heroin and alcohol, at one point vomiting blood and becoming psychotic, attacking Bryce and his girlfriend. He would later tell me that he’d thought he was a character from the TV show True Blood. He thought he had killed me. The blood he had vomited, he thought, was my blood. He checked himself into rehab two days later.

~

After completing rehab, Gray sent Bryce a text saying that he didn’t want to see him again, that he wanted his life to go in a different direction now. During a visit that summer, he had confided how scary Bryce had become, how he had deteriorated into a wraith-like creature that Gray hardly recognized, that his music had suffered. I could see that it brought Gray no pleasure to say these things, that it hurt and confused him to see what had become of his friend. Bryce had become a pariah in the music community, partly because of his notorious drug use, and partly due to his selling and promoting the use of heroin, opiates and methamphetamine. Gray’s friends told me that Bryce would text them constantly to let them know of new shipments of drugs he had, even if they were drugs that Gray’s friends didn’t want. Gray’s girlfriend told me that even if all you wanted from Bryce was pot, he’d try to talk you into something else. And in the past, Gray had hardly ever been able to resist.

But after Gray got out of rehab this time—head shaved, shiny recovery medallion dangling on his keychain—he said he was committed to staying clean and sober. Life was difficult, though. He was unable to find a job for about seven or eight months. Too many petty crime arrests. An outstanding charge from 2013 for possession of a small amount of meth was still unresolved. No one wanted to hire him. He sent job application after job application out, and almost hit bottom when even Jack-in-the-Box wouldn’t hire him. Finally, sometime in September, he called me in Pittsburgh, where I live, excited to report he had passed a drug test and would be beginning work for Amazon, a seasonal job fulfilling orders through the end of the holiday season.

The decision to drive to Bryce’s on that December day is a mystery. He had seemed to like his job and had already made some good friends there. Old friends and his girlfriend insist that he seemed free of drugs, although he had started drinking again. His decision is like a fog of epic proportion that does not reveal a path, even when you shine your brightest lights into it. Indeed, all your powers of analysis simply seem to obscure the matter. That’s the mystery of fog, as anyone who’s attempted to drive in it knows: that it does not respond as darkness does to light, by opening up a way, but rather just reveals more of itself. The powers of light are not useful in fog. The best thing to do is usually to wait it out, although few of us will do so if something we really want requires us to drive through fog to get it.

And yet, while I don’t know what my son’s reasons might have been for risking his life by driving in dangerous weather conditions to see a person who had become deadly for him, if he had them, I can empathize. Thirty-five years earlier, when I was just a few years younger than Gray was that December 9th, I fell in with a skinny, dark-haired musician with a handlebar mustache. I was a junior at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, and Fred had just graduated with a BA in music. He was the coolest person I’d ever met. We both played guitar, and he taught me some unique guitar tunings and turned me on to some wildly awesome Brazilian music. He impressed me with his knowledge of music in general, and his collection of records rivaled mine in taste and breadth. At that time in my life, the things I was proudest of were my music collection and the few short songs I had written. Almost everything else was gravy. To my soul, only music mattered.

Fred and I met at a restaurant in Hammond where I used to tend bar. We hung out one night playing guitar and talking about music, and when he suggested we do some lines of coke I said yes. It turned out he knew as much about drugs as he did about music. We stayed up those first few nights drinking scotch and snorting coke, and eventually making love. Over the weeks, he gradually worked up to asking me to shoot him up, showing me how to prepare a shot, then asked if I wanted to try. And because I trusted him—he was so cool, he knew so much about music and how to do drugs safely (clean needle, never share, he’d said), I decided to try it. And so we spent a summer shooting up coke and drinking scotch, talking about music, sharing records and songs, playing guitar, and making love.

I became so bonded with him through the ritual of shooting dope and playing music that I would have done anything for him. When he said he would be happier if I lost some weight, I did—I lost ten pounds in about three weeks. When he asked if I knew anyone who wanted to buy some coke, I checked around. We sold some to my brother, who would wind up dying a few years later of a drug overdose.

No one else knew this side of me. To almost everyone else, I was a third-year English major in good standing at Southeastern, a Joni Mitchell wannabe whose hobby was music. I did have clarity about wanting to finish college, but in regards to anything related to Fred, my mind was a haze. I couldn’t see clearly what was happening to me, even though co-workers who spied the pin-prick bruises on my arms expressed concern, which I brushed off, in the way I imagine Gray would have brushed away the fog warnings. I knew what I was doing. I could handle it.

So, I get it, in a way. I get why Gray might have wanted to drive through the thickest fog ever to see the darkest friend ever, who knew things about him that no one else did. To see a friend to whom he wouldn’t have to lie. Fifty miles of fog. Did he ever think of turning back?

At some point, after a period I no longer remember, Fred broke up with me abruptly for another woman. From one day to the next I found myself abandoned, depressed and what I now know must have been dope sick, feeling a hopelessness I had never felt before. Hammond was a small town; I had already seen Fred in a couple of our favorite restaurants with the new woman, which stabbed at both my heart and pride. What to do? It felt like some huge action had to be taken. Some purging thing. But what?

I had a friend in Baton Rouge who had come through a tough time on drugs and would know something about what I was feeling. I decided I’d quit my job, leave Hammond, and move to Baton Rouge with her where we could share an apartment. It was only 50 miles away; I could commute to Hammond on Tuesdays and Thursdays to finish up my classes. I was as low as a person could be, my thoughts as clouded and black as they have ever been, but something in me chose life that day. If addiction is a river, I was still swimming in it, but I made an unexpected move to the shoreline that day instead of into deeper, more uncertain currents.

My fifty-mile trip was all about choosing life, although I don’t know that I understood it at the time, and I was lucky to have a friend who took me in. My choice will ever be a mystery, though, because I could just as easily have gone the other way; everything in my genes was screaming for that other way. Father, brother, aunt all fallen to alcohol or drugs, others in the family on the way. Why I didn’t follow them I will never know. If I were a religious person, I would say something blessed me that day. But I’m not a religious person. Perhaps some part of me believed, as I still do, in the capacity for humans, even one as unworthy as I, to change, and the tiniest hope of change was enough to shove me just the tiniest bit in a different direction that day. But I’m making this up. The truth is, I don’t know why I chose life.

I don’t remember what the weather was like when I drove the fifty miles from Hammond to Baton Rouge, that day thirty-five years ago, but I know I drove through a mist of pain and tears. And for months afterwards I rarely spoke except when it was necessary. I wore all black; I even wore a black beret. It was as if something or someone had died, and I was in mourning. I drank coffee with cinnamon and listened to Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert over and over. I wrote horrible, sad poems, and played even sadder songs on the guitar. I found a job at a jazz bar in Baton Rouge. I commuted to Hammond on Tuesdays and Thursdays and plodded through my coursework. And slowly, slowly, I materialized back into a world without Fred, without drugs.

Who knows what was in Gray’s heart as he drove his fifty miles to Decatur that day. Perhaps he was driving through a fog of pain and suffering that made the literal fog seem like clarity. Perhaps he was so out of tune with the moment, with the actual world, that he hardly noticed the fog, or registered it only as an irritation. Or maybe it echoed with some fog inside of him, some place he could never get clarity about, no matter how much he tried, no matter what light he shone on it. He had taken two packs of syringes with him, stolen from his girlfriend, who is a diabetic. She thinks he planned to trade or sell them to lower the cost of whatever drugs he was looking to buy.

The 911 call was made by Bryce from Gray’s phone at 3:00 PM that day. Gray wasn’t breathing. The paramedics managed to get a pulse, but were unable to stabilize it, and he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The detective who handled the case said Bryce’s house was clearly a drug house. It was filthy, with needles and empty beer cans everywhere. The detective also said the only mark on Gray was a needle mark on his right hand.

Philosopher and former heroin addict William Pryor writes that “addiction is a philosophical mystery, more like that of, say, happiness. Neurochemists imagine happiness can be reduced to a chemical; most of us know it is far more elusive, the proper subject of mysticism, philosophy, psychology, literature, film, music and art.” I don’t want to give up trying to come to some kind of clarity or serenity about my son’s choices and my own, but I’m not certain I will come to the end of my life saying that I understand any of it. I feel compassion for his suffering, and empathy for his choices, though I wish every moment of every day that he had not chosen to get up that morning and drive into that fog.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Fred hadn’t broken up with me, if we had continued shooting up coke the way we were then. I was already doing whatever he asked of me, and had even stooped to selling drugs to my own brother. What else might I have done, or become, if he’d kept me around? Would I have chosen life if I had fallen so far into the river that I couldn’t even see what life could be outside of it? Would I have driven fifty miles in a deadly fog to talk music, do drugs, have sex with him one more time if he’d asked me?

The fog is in us and surrounds us, insidious, seductive, suicidal. A cloud-river, coiled, coked, cooked, shot, knotted into itself so deep you can’t see your way out. Some of us, through happenstance, stumble to the shore; others, their sights set on some prize the living do not perceive, lose sight of it.

Originally from New Orleans and of Cajun and Creole descent, Sheryl St. Germain is a poet and essayist whose work has received numerous awards including two NEA Fellowships and an NEH grant.
Her poetry books include Making Bread at Midnight, How Heavy the Breath of God, The Journals of Scheherazade, and Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems. She has written two memoirs, Swamp Songs: the Making of an Unruly Woman, and Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair. She co-edited, with Margaret Whitford, Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century, and with Sarah Shotland Words Without Walls: Writers on Violence, Addiction and Incarceration.
Sheryl directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University and is co-founder of the Words Without Walls program. (http://www.wordswithoutwalls.com/)

A poetry collection, The Small Door of Your Death, is forthcoming from Autumn House Press, in 2018. You can find her at http://sheryl-stgermain.com/

Meredith Lindgren lives in Denver, where her art has won the gold and bronze medal winner of the Colorado State Fair Home Brew Competition in the label category. She has shown her paintings in small coffee shops. When not creating art, she has worked as a childcare worker, a radio co-host and an appointment setter.

2 Comments

  1. Sheryl, your words, your story, touched me deeply. I admire your skill and courage to express painful truth in such a pure and beautiful way.

  2. Hi Sheryl,
    I found your use of fog as both reality and metaphor effective and moving. Your writing depicts tragic situations in beautiful, evocative language. As a mother, I can only imagine the pain you’ve been through. Thank you for sharing through your art.

Go ahead and Leave Feedback about this essay for a reply from the author.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
%d bloggers like this: