Monday, January 31, 2011

2: Oxy & Contin: In Line at the Pain Clinic

“The Freedom from Pain Clinic was the busiest of the city’s pill mills . . .”

An Associated Press  reporter had dubbed River City  “The Oxycontin Capital of America.” Whether or not that was an exaggeration, the city and the Freedom from Pain Clinic in particular had  become a mecca for people with legitimate aches and pains as well as those suffering from the illegitimate pain of addiction.
The kittens Oxy and Contin were so named because of the addiction they had acquired in their mother’s womb, but since their mother’s death they  had been able to  find  the drug  only in trace amounts, amounts so slight that it whetted rather than satisfied their craving. With their acute sense of smell, they had a nose for where to find it, but they had found it only in minuscule amounts. Of the half dozen pill mills in the River City, the one that became the kittens’ favorite was the Freedom from Pain Clinic because many of those who lined up outside it each day had not blood but Oxycontin on their hands. 
The Freedom from Pain Clinic was the busiest of the city’s pill mills, with  people traveling from far and near in the Appalachian region to line up with the locals outside the front door, six days a week,  before nine  o’clock, hoping to get a prescription for Oxycontin from Doctor  Phillip Gudenoff. In the three years his clinic had been in operation, the doctor had become  a  hero to those in the long lines and a maligned figure in the media, a cross between Dr. Albert Schweitzer and  Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Dr. Gudenoff's name had morphed into the more easily remembered “Dr.  Feel Good.” People advised friends and acquaintances in pain to “Go see Dr.  Feel Good. He’ll fix you up.”
The doctor’s "clients," as he referred to them, were a grim looking lot as they lined up on a  bitterly cold  but crystal clear Saturday morning, early in January. The men, cigarettes dangling from their lips. shifted from foot to foot to increase the circulation in their toes. The women stared down blankly at the sidewalk, looking like the dummies in the window of the  Salvation Army Second hand clothing store that was just a couple of empty storefronts away. The scene outside the clinic this morning was like a Movietone newsreel  from the Great Depression, only instead of a bowl of soup those in line were hoping for a prescription for the pain killer that was all the rage. 
As much to keep warm as anything, an older man in line cradled  Oxy in  his arms. In exchange for the warmth the kitten provided him, the older man allowed Oxy free rein to  lick the fingers of both his hands, which had traces of Oxycontin. Seasoned Oxycontin addicts, like the older man, took the pills home and, to defeat the  time release properties,  pulverized the pills on the kitchen table with a spoon. If they were impatient, they  broke the pills in half and ground the two halves between the thumb and index finger. That was considered the more manly method. The addicts then had the choice of swallowing the powder with a liquid or  inhaling it nasally, like cocaine. Hardcore users in ghettoes preferred inhaling smoke from burning Oxycontin, but that was a wasteful if quicker method that was not practiced in River City. Whatever method was used, traces of Oxycontin remained on the fingers. The euphoria Oxycontin produced in addicts the first hour was like the  ecstasy Appalachians had experienced in religious camp meetings and revivals in the nineteenth century.
“The pill kills the existential agony of life and makes you want to start a-singing and a-stomping like Jerry Lee Lewis,” said an older long-haired man to a chain-smoking younger man behind him who was in line for the first time. The long braided hair of the older man made him a lookalike for Willie Nelson, not  Jerry Lee Lewis. He had been a drummer in the Knocked-Up rock band in his teens and he had audited a philosophy course at the River City Community College in his twenties, which converted him to existentialism. 
In the older man’s arms, Oxy was not contaminated by traditional American addictions—caffeine, nicotine, sugar, salt, fat, sex, money, celebrities, sports, politics, and, of course, religion. Oxy was a purring purebred example of Ocycontin addiction. He licked the older man’s fingers as eagerly as a hungry bear cub would a beekeeper’s gloves.  
“What do you mean, ‘agony  of life’?” the younger man asked.  Fancy phrases made the younger man uncomfortable. A high school dropout, he felt that people who had attended the community college, looked down on him, using terms he  wouldn’t understand. Like his cousin  who was studying computers. His cousin was always in an input-output mode, using acronyms  like HTML and ASCII and words like cookies and Bluetooth that had nothing to do with cookies or teeth. Rarely awake before noon, the younger man  the night before had been up watching the Tonight Show, smoking Camels  and marijuana, coughing frequently. In line, in the cold,   everything seemed a little unreal and slightly sinister to him—the older man, the line of people, the clinic, even the kittens.  
“What do  I mean by agony of existence?” the  older man said. “I’m sixty-one. I had to declare bankruptcy in a recession twenty years ago.  Lost everything.  Felt  like shit until they came up with this stuff.”
“What stuff?” the younger man asked.
“Oxycontin,” the older man said.
 The younger man had been trying to ignore Oxy’s sister, Contin, who had been  rubbing against his ankle for a few minutes, meowing to get picked up. Following the example of the older man, the younger man finally reluctantly  picked Contin up, holding  her in the crook of  his left arm, holding his cigarette between the yellowed thumb and index finger of his right hand. Contin immediately began trying to lick  the fingers of his left hand. He had begun smoking cigarettes at eleven and by eighteen had smoked about sixty thousand of them. He had switched to filter cigarettes since he had developed his cough.
“You’d feel  even shittier if  you were my age,” the younger man said. 
“How old are you?” the older man asked.
“I’m twenty-one,” the younger man lied, struggling with  the squirmy Contin. Finding only  the unpleasant traces of cigarettes and  marijuana on the fingers of the younger man’s  left hand, Contin tried to get at his right  hand,  which held  the cigarette.
“It’s one thing to feel like shit when you’re sixty-one and another to feel that way when you’re twenty-one,” the younger man said, not wanting to admit he was only eighteen.
“Twenty-one, what’s wrong with  twenty-one?” the older man asked. The younger man didn't answer. He was watching  Oxy licking the older man's  fingers.
The younger man put his cigarette  in his mouth, and offered Contin his left hand since that was what she was squirming for.  She licked his fingers and thumb eagerly but because all she tasted were traces of pot and nicotine, she made a face.  She did not want to waste  time on someone  whose breath, hair, clothes and even pores reeked of tobacco and pot but whose hands didn’t have a trace of Oxycontin. She increased her squirming, wanting to be put back down on the sidewalk so she could continue her quest for Oxycontin. After he put her down, the younger man watched her walk  further down the line, wagging her little tail and mewing plaintively, trying to entice someone else to pick her up, like the drug-addicted street-walking pussies did on John Street in the heart of the red light neighborhood, which was close to the Freedom from Pain Clinic. 
Contin reminded the younger man  of   the street-walker he had picked  up on  John Street two years earlier. Driving his older brother's Dodge Dart, he had picked her up on his sixteenth birthday and drove her up and down John Street a couple of times, wondering where he was going to find a place to screw her. With her mascara and lipstick, she looked like an abused, over-the-hill kewpie doll. She had to be a least thirty. At sixteen, he was still a virgin and had no idea how to handle the situation but was trying to pretend he did.
"Whacha doin'?" the girl had asked him after he had driven  up and down the street a couple of times.  There were abandoned, boarded-up houses on John Street, and he was looking for one that they could use.
"I said whacha doin'?" she repeated.
"What do you think I'm doing. I'm looking for a place to screw you," he had said.
"Screw me?" she had asked incredulously. "What do you expect for two bucks?" Two bucks was the price they had agreed on before she got in his car, but what he didn't know was that she had been negotiating about a blow job. He  didn't know that the older guys cruised  John Street to get blown, not laid. He was so flustered and embarrassed that he finally gave her five dollars, which was the only money he had in his jeans.
Snapping out of his John St. reverie, the younger guy  said to the older guy, “If  you’re sixty you’re about to croak anyway, but  if you’re twenty-one  you’ve got to put in another fucking forty years at least, forty years with no job, no hope, no nothing. If  I couldn’t get stoned once in a while, I’d probably turn on the gas.”
“It’s those  foreign monkeys who’re willing to work  for peanuts,” the older man said. “They’re the ones. They’ve  taken our jobs. They’re ruining this country.”
“Yeah,” the younger man agreed, nodding his head. “They’re eating our lunch.”
Oxy began squirming to indicate to the older man that he’d  had enough, that he’d licked the man’s hands clean of all traces of Oxycontin, and that he wanted to be put down. But the  older man was too busy complaining about  the company he’d worked for for twenty years. “They just upped and moved the plant to Timbuktu.” He went on and on about the company, but the younger man, who had never held a job for more than a couple of months, was no longer listening to him.  He was watching Oxy struggling to get out of the older man’s arms, but the older man wouldn’t let go of him. All the kitten wanted was his freedom back, the freedom to pursue the drug he craved. He angrily turned on the older man, scratching the  back of his hand, drawing blood.
 “Hey!”  the older man yelled, dropping Oxy on the sidewalk like a hot potato. “What the hell is it with this kitten?” He stared  in disbelief at the blood trickling  from the scratches.
“You got to be careful,” the younger man warned, “it could be rabies.”
Neither the younger man or the older man understood  that it was not rabies but the Oxycontin that explained the kittens’ peculiar behavior. Only when Oxy was well down the line  did the kitten turn around to make sure  the older  man was not following him. The behavior of humans, especially the ones in pants, baffled him. Besides, he was exhausted from all his licking.  Now cold and tired, he wanted to  cuddle up with  Contin in the sun and take a catnap. He meowed for her and she meowed back, coming over to him, and they rubbed noses, reaffirming their bond each other, cuddling together in the cold, as they took a break from their search for Oxycontin.  

Contin and Oxy cuddling in the cold