Now that Abe no longer shoots heroin, he sounds like a fifty-dollar self-help seminar and the problem is I’ve seen this all before. The problem is that my life these days is a series of dips and dives while my brother, despite his past, keeps thriving. The problem is he won’t shut up about it. Abe tells me it’s not luck but Drug Magic, that all his previous wrongs have undergone a reversal. He says, “No, Mags, Drug Magic’s not pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It’s like you ask the universe for what you need, and you get it.”
He lies on his creeper under a Honda Civic ravaged with rust. He grunts, punches. A bolt cracks.
He says, “Hand me the breaker bar, Mags.”
I don’t hand him the breaker bar because who the hell knows what a breaker bar is and because I’m headed off to the community college where I’m working on my nursing degree so I can one day move beyond in-home healthcare, beyond a raggedy-assed house on the West Side. I could really use some Drug Magic now that rent is due and my last charge, Gertrude, is dead. I corner my Buick and beg the universe like Abe’s instructed, but nothing happens. I slow down in front of Cash Max Loans, but I’m not that desperate yet.
Abe says being desperate is the key to Drug Magic. He says, “The magic is that if you’re desperate enough, you make it happen. Like if you need dope, you steal that shit.”
To me, the magic is the way these rusted Hondas appear and then vanish, how they beep in on a backing tow truck and braaap their way out just inches from the ground, how Abe counts his stacks of cash in the whirl of exhaust. Drug Magic to me is the way the sink piles up with dishes and oily tools while I work night shifts, but when I wake up in the afternoon it’s scrubbed down to shimmers. It’s why the hell I even let Abe stay here in the first place after all the shit he’s put me through.
In the letter I wrote to Abe while he was still off at rehab #3, I included an itemized list of his transgressions. Besides the credit card he stole, the arguments and lies, there was his carelessness as the family fell apart.
I remember the Christmas when I clenched my jaw while aunts and uncles praised Abe’s recovery. That was after rehab #1 when Abe became Buddhist and refused to get a job. While I studied and barista-ed part time, Abe swiped small bills from the vacation fund and smoked pinners in his basement bedroom. While mom and dad argued over mortgages and medical bills, Abe chanted his oms on the couch. After rehab #2, the one led by bodybuilders, he chugged protein shakes and said things like, “the only way out is through.” He told Mom “Winners never quit” while she tried to pack her bags, fit her life into the trunk of her car, and “Pain just makes you stronger” as she took off to Atlanta to live another life. Dad didn’t know what to do either. Insurance was too high. Everyone was broke. So Abe and Dad just shouted and Abe punched holes in walls, while I studied, eavesdropped, cried, from my bedroom down the hall.
When I finished writing that letter, I rewrote it without the wet smudges. I pulled up the blinds and there was the gray Ohio world, family-free. A week later I skimmed Abe’s response, then tossed it on the dining-room table, lost it under piles of bills and ads, headed out to my night shift watching Gertrude fade away.
I used to talk to Gertrude while I checked her vitals and fed her meds through sleepless nights. I’d list the bones of the body, pose practice quiz questions about neurotransmitter deficiency in Parkinson’s patients. While wiping her ass, I’d ask, “What’s the cause of most lawsuits involving nursing professionals?”
On good days, Gertrude would say something like, “Probably wiping butts with that cheap-ass TP.” But as time went on her words became gurgles and she sat dead-eyed in front of the tv while Archie Bunker screamed racist slurs at the Jamaican lady doctor who only wanted to help.
It was about midnight and she was still watching All in the Family, gurgling away when I got the call from Abe that he was out of rehab, about to catch a flight to Cleveland. I was nice. I said, “How the fuck did you get my number?”
He said, “Didn’t you get my letter?”
There was a quiver in his voice, and I saw my chance to break him.
He said, “I’ve got nowhere else. You can say no. You should say no.” A quaver, a sob.
“Don’t fucking cry,” I said, “I’m busy watching a woman die.”
“I’ll owe you. I’ll pay you back. I’ll pay you back double. I wish I didn’t have to call you.” Actual tears, I could almost hear them plop.
Abe said, “They’re hooking me up with a temp agency. Four weeks and I’ll have a paycheck.”
What was I doing with my life anyways but passing meds to a dying lady? I didn’t even have friends, really. All I had was the bubble of Tonya, the first shift caretaker who replaced me every morning. When Tonya swung into the room with a “How are we feeling today?” I went to Walmart and bought a safe. At home, I poured all the beer I couldn’t finish down the drain, drunkenly shoved the entire craft room into the closet to make space for the inflatable mattress. When the air pump stopped working, I blew into the nozzle until my cheeks stung.
Now Abe’s upgraded to a queen size bed and a box spring that he scored from the VOA, his first real bed in one hundred days of sobriety. He works his temp job at the thermostat factory in the evening and fixes up cars in his free time so he can sell them to the types of shady dudes who hang out in the Taco Bell parking lot at midnight, engines bare beneath the streetlights. Now that Gertrude’s dead and I’m scrounging for cash, I sit in front of the TV, flip through note cards over muted All in the Family. It helps me remember the answers.
After a year of third shift, I can’t sleep at night. I squint my way through the front door in the morning to the screech of metal, Abe sanding paint bubbles to the rust below. He calls it patina, but it’s just corrosion. Drug Magic is the yard filled with car parts without my permission. It’s tires that lean against the garage and a dude I don’t know in a hoodie at the end of summer watching Abe buff the driver’s side door to a linseed oil shine. There are new engines weighing down the crumbling shells of Volkswagen hatchbacks, glasspack exhausts revved by fender-bendered beaters. Abe says, “Just like my ugly mug. You can’t see the Magic cause it’s under the hood.” He knocks his fist against his goofy head.
I say that maybe I should’ve just gone to rehab instead of college, gotten Drug Magic instead of this useless degree.
Abe straightens to a lanky tower with hunched shoulders, “Ok, Mags, what’s up?”
I say, “Shit, man. Gertrude’s dead and I’m broke.” A tear dribbles down, tickles my upper lip. He moves like he’s about to hug me, but when he looks over his shoulder at his friend, I step back. I wipe my face on my sleeve. I tell him I’m trying to do what’s right, too, but Gertrude had to go and die and now I’m short on rent and nothing’s really going right at all.
Abe pulls a wad of cash from his pocket, an inch thick of doubled-over bills. He used to tote folds of money like this when he was dealing. I remember Christmas ‘07, just before rehab #1 when he pulled off hundreds and low-fived them into everyone’s palms as a gift and then a couple hours later, excused himself to tip from the toilet to the floor, smashed his head on the linoleum from a heavy-handed shot.
Abe peels off some money. I hold up my hand. He’s already paid off his debt, his half of the bills. I can’t ask for more. He says, “It’s the least I can do. Like I was saying, you put your need out there and the universe provides.”
I want to ask him if the universe cares that the cash is untaxed, coming from nefarious characters who hide their faces, leave cigarette butts in the yard. But I need the money. Maybe this is the Drug part of the Magic, the part that doesn’t ask questions, slips what you need in your pocket without a word while trying to choke back the shame.
But the magic persists, it expands, becomes real. I pay rent and the next day get a call about a new client, Zechariah, at $15 per hour. His beard hangs down to his bellybutton, eyes set into the skull, and he’s hardly any work at all because when I give him his prescription Oxycontin pills he becomes kind for a while, then passes out.
When I get home, Abe’s futzing with a puzzle of engine parts laid out and labelled with marker-scrawled masking tape on the garage floor. He stands to face me, all six feet of him, skeleton and muscle within billows of stained coveralls, the sunken cheeks and eyebrows.
He says, “They say you can’t have recovery without honesty, and you can’t adjust without trust.”
I bite my lip, feel the sleep drain from me. I say, “Trust? Abe, what the fuck did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything,” he says, “Stinkin’ thinkin’. I’ve been falling into it.” He pulls his hand from his pocket, in his palm, cigarette-pack cellophane, indiscernible pills. He says, “I bought the car from the junkyard and found them beneath the back seat. They usually search before I get the cars. One time Randy found a wallet, another time, a human finger. How crazy is that?”
I tell him crazy is my brother with a crinkled baggie full of drugs when he hasn’t even seen six months’ clean time. I tell him crazy is me thinking I can trust him. “Trust is rust,” I say, “trust is fucking out the window.”
“Mags,” he says. “I didn’t do it. The bag’s still sealed.”
Then we are on the road. After he handed me the pills, we almost hugged again, but he broke the awkwardness with an ask. A clutch assembly in Dayton and he says he needs a friend to come along. He needs someone to keep him in check, so he isn’t alone with his thoughts.
He puts on Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done,” breathes this melody in with all its irony, shifts into fifth and pushes the gas to rumble us through the countryside. Corn turned to chaff and husks on either side. We belt out the lyrics while the sun rises in his eyes, red in his cheeks, hands stable on the wheel.
We stop in Westerville for barbeque and Abe says he’s buying. He says, “Have a beer. For real. I’m cool. And you’re not even driving.” But I don’t have a beer. I add my sober days to his, suck barbeque from my fingers, soak napkins with the sauce. He says nothing about Drug Magic, maybe because we don’t really need anything right now, maybe because the only thing we want is the clutch, and we’re already on our way to get it.
Drug Magic is how old man Zechariah is fine once he takes his pills. He’s a jittery, helpless grump through the day, but when I pull the bottle from the cabinet and rattle out an Oxy he calls me Honey. He says, “Honey, you’re such a blessing.”
Drug Magic is how, when he starts to have trouble swallowing, I crush the Oxycontin with the back of a spoon, stir it into his orange juice. It’s the way the pills make him sleep through the night so that I can clean the house and then nap till sunrise.
He bitches at the TV and I bring his Oxy-orange, stick a straw in his mouth. I wonder how much this job would worry Abe, how far down he would spiral with that pile of powder in front of him. Zechariah chokes, spits the juice on the floor, claws the glass from my hand burbling orange on his lap. “You’re trying to kill me! I seen you put that shit in there.”
I hold back a fuck. “I’m sorry.” It takes a half hour to calm him down. I mop up the floor, pour his pills on the counter, and flick through them pile to pile. Not enough left to get him through the week. My brother is a junky and my coworkers know it. So many mornings I’ve bitched to my replacement how living with a recovering addict worries me, how I’m always questioning a reddened eye or a clenched jaw. These things run in the family. Now the bottle will be a pill short and who do you blame?
In the morning, I have to park down the street. I come home to a house I don’t recognize, grass prairie-ing around mounds of metal, hubcaps smashing the yard down to yellow, car bodies on blocks cover every spot of concrete. There are clangs and clashes coming through the garage door. With clinicals, work, and school, I don’t think I’ve seen Abe all week.
I slam cupboard doors in the kitchen, not a coffee cup in sight. I curse Abe as I stomp through his bedroom snatch up mug after dredge-bottomed mug.
Back in the kitchen, I stop still and rustling, hands full of dirty dishes as he twists a butter knife into a greasy alternator. He says, “Mags, you look like shit.”
I decide to break his smile. A cup cracks as I slam it on the counter. “For fuck’s sake, Abe, can you at least keep your grimy-ass car shit in the garage?”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t find my flathead. I’ve just been picking up all these side jobs since they laid me off.” He gestures with the alternator. “Cash.”
“Laid you off? Fuck. Laid you off?”
Abe smiles that Drug Magic smile, “No worries. I have a list of twenty people wanting oil changes. I was gonna call my business Abe’s Lincolns, but I don’t really work on Lincolns. Got a Caddy in the garage now.”
I say that he should call his business Homeless Hondas because there’s no way in hell I’m letting him run an illegal mechanic’s shop out of my house.
Abe says, “Come on.” and I see it now, that hope boiling in his mind, that need to repair, to keep working until he’s too tired to work. To take something ruined and make it hum.
“No way in hell,” I say. “And this shit better be all cleaned up by the time I’m home.”
Abe asks, “When is that?” and I let the door answer for me.
I once again count Zechariah’s pills while he coughs and sputters. His brainstem is corroded, his memories, his vocabulary, eaten by disease. I’m here because he has outlived friends and family, left them all behind. I’m here because he pays me, or his estate does, or whatever. It’s business. I have a contract with his daughter who moved down South and never calls.
Tonight, though, I have that crinkled cellophane Drug Magic in my purse. I cut the plastic and Morphine tumbles out. It’s not Oxy, but the pill’s still powder and dissolve into OJ and Zechariah will sleep and no one will know the difference. Zechariah drinks through the straw without question this time.
I sit with him until his eyes droop. He says, “Honey” and mumbles off to sleep. I manage the transfer lift from chair to bed and he snores as I tuck him in.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell Abe there’s a way we can do this. I’ve been thinking. We can’t run a garage out of the house, but, I’ll say, filled with goodwill and enthusiasm “where there’s a will…”
He’ll say something equally vomit-inducing like, “If you need it, the universe will deliver,” and I’ll roll my eyes and try not to slap him. He’ll give me that grin and we’ll clean up the house together. We’ll sweep up the rust, mow the yard, plant a damn garden. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out. We need to, and we’ll use that need like a drug. He’ll say, “you see, Mags? This shit works! Drug Magic” and I’ll just say whatever. Fuck it. We’ll make it happen. And if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.