Life was hard then. I was eating cold pinto beans out of a can that I had to open with a hammer because I didn’t own a can opener. Having lost my wallet with my state ID, bus pass, and a few dollars, I had to walk everywhere. My phone had been disconnected for weeks and the electricity was on its way to being cut off, so I finally called my mother and the check was in the mail. The only problem was that since I didn’t have a bank account or ID, I would not be able to get the check cashed. I was pretty much screwed.
But all was not lost. I had friends. Good friends. They would bail me out. Again.
“I’m low on food myself,” Lance said as he gave me $5 for food and bus fare home. I figured this was probably true, as Lance spends a large portion of his money on pills and alcohol, and most of the time he gazes out the window jotting down a sentence or two in between snorts of hydrocodone and various alcoholic drinks. He does this in exactly the same order every day: He begins with two glasses of cheap red wine, then continues with three or four glasses of Scotch and soda, and finishes off with a large can of beer. All the while writing unrelated sentences and getting up every hour or so to do a couple of snorts.
“You should start writing again,” I tell him from time to time, for he is a gifted writer and could possibly have been a successful one—his writing has greatness. Instead, he has made a career out of getting high. To give him credit, he does manage to keep his excesses somewhat under control, and at age 70, he seems as happy as anyone I know.
“Writing unrelated sentences is not writing,” I said. “You have to put the sentences together to be a real writer.” Possibly I am wrong about this, but Lance and I have a long history of nagging one another and most of what I learned about writing, I learned from him.
Not entirely dismayed, I moved on to my other best friends.
Dorothy, whose cabinets are stockpiled to the ceiling with canned goods, gave me the remainder of her morning oatmeal and said: “Well, you’re not going to learn anything about budgeting until you go hungry a few times.” Clearly, Dorothy has never been hungry.
My last attempt was Charlie. I knew for sure that he would help me because he is Buddhist—and isn’t Buddhism all about compassion?
“There’s a food bank on 23rd Street day after tomorrow,” he said. “I can’t help you right now. I’m in a new relationship and you know how careful one has to be in the beginning of a romance.”
“Of course,” I replied, mentally crossing him off my ever-decreasing list of best friends.
So that was that. I was hungry and alone, in an abyss where no light entered, on a pathway that only spiraled downward. It rained relentlessly in November as my birthday passed unnoticed even by me. I went to bed on the beautiful sheets with the pink roses that my mother had given me in one of her futile efforts to cheer me up. Day followed weary day as I lay in bed staring out the window as the autumn fog lay heavy on black, skeletal trees.
I sent a friend out for a bottle of cheap whiskey and drank it straight out of the bottle, which caused hours of weeping. I seemed to be the observer, more than the participant, of my abysmal depression, as though I had fallen into the trap door of someone else’s basement where no light could enter and no voice could be heard save my own: “Please God let this be over please God let this be over please God let this be over…”
Finally, the electricity was cut off and there was not only an absence of light but it was also cold, and I prayed that the sun would come out and warm the bed I lay in. I slept odd hours, hardly knowing whether it was day or night. For me it was always dark.
Then the check from my mother arrived.
Finally, I roused myself enough to take the bus to my friend’s art gallery in Homberg Place and she cashed my check and gave me food. There was a woman there whom I had given a painting to, and she talked of the $85 earrings her daughter had just given her, and I hated her for it. I hated myself for the irresponsibility that had caused me to be broke.
But there is something about a full bag of groceries on the kitchen table that brings hope, so I lit candles and had a picnic with my dog, Mallory. I ate a grilled cheese sandwich, a large bag of potato chips, two Mars bars. I polished them off with a jug of milk and some more cheap whiskey, which I drank now out of a wine glass.
I sat rocking Mallory back and forth, back and forth, the creaking of the chair bringing comfort, as did the flickering of the candles against the living room wall. Wrapped in my mother’s quilt, my dog and I fell asleep huddled together like geese tucked in toward one another on a midnight wharf. In the morning I awoke with the sun streaming through the window and the squeak squeak of Mallory’s rubber unicorn being dropped dead on my face.
I bundled myself up and went to pay the electric bill. Everything that had ceased to function in my life, in my brain, had begun to rev itself up again and seek motion, like the motor of a plane as it prepares for take-off. My despair lifted as suddenly as it had come, and its disappearance was so complete that I could hardly believe it was ever there—like when you have an abscessed tooth pulled, and afterward you soon forget how it made you once believe that nothing existed in life save pain.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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