The Tar of Freedom by Frederick Frankenberg
The Tar of Freedom by Frederick Frankenberg
The peaceful and calm sensation when I found that vein in my arm with the needle flashed through my mind. My eyes opened, and I had blurry vision. I had sat on the driver’s seat of my car inside the parking lot with my door open for what seemed like a split-second ago. The friendly dealer I bought the drug from on that empty corner in the nicer side of town kissed his fingers and put his hand up in the sky when I asked him how good his stuff was. An overpowering light obscured everything I saw as if I had gone to heaven. My sight adjusted to the circular ceiling above. I moved my eyes down and saw that my body lay on a hospital bed in a small room with white checkered tiles. A wheelchair with a bunched-up seat sat right next to me.
My brother smiled in front of me. To be specific, he was my half-brother, and we never saw each other much in the past. He seemed much older, and his hair had grayed. He wore strange clothes: a shirt with frills at the wrists and leather pants. Both my parents passed away years ago. My brother was my last living relative. A bald pockmarked doctor in a medical coat wearing strange thick glasses with flashing lights over the lenses stood next to him. The window in my room had a view of a metal dumpster.
“Hello, Karl. You’ve been in a coma for thirty years,” the doctor said.
“It’s great to have my brother back,” Tony said.
“You had a heroin overdose. We’ve kept you alive for that long. It’s a miracle you’re in good shape. Your muscles have atrophied,” the doctor said. “We’ll have you in physical therapy to get them back.”
“Oh no!” I tried to say, but uh uh came out.
I tried to grab the raised metal side of the gurney and could not move my arms. My skeletal legs struggled and I could not move them. I couldn’t get through the weakness. A hospital gown clung to my body. My dizziness soon subsided.
“Take your time,” the doctor said. “You need exercise to get your body back to normal.”
I tried to form words out of my mouth but failed. My muttered speech was incomprehensible and unexpressive, so I moaned.
“You don’t have health insurance,” the doctor said. “Because of the Hippocratic Oath, we’ll give you some physical therapy but we need to make room for paying patients.”
The nurses wheeled me into the bathroom to relieve myself. In the tiny constricting lavatory, I saw an old man in the mirror. Sorrow consumed me as I realized that elderly person was me. Thirty years have passed, and I had nothing to show for it except, probably, an astronomical hospital bill that could have paid for five hospitals with jacuzzis and gold X-ray machines and my name in a medical journal. A tear slid down my cheek. My messy grey hair was draped behind my wheelchair as they dressed me, and I tried to distract myself. It took a kerosene lighter five minutes to cook a spoonful of water with brown rock. Sometimes the stuff dissolved by just shaking it in a soda cap. I had slight tract marks from the IV feeding me liquids in both my arms for the time I must have spent. A stinging pain came from my crotch from the catheter.
I choked making words in my mouth with grief, holding back my sadness. The picket lines for my secretaries’ union and LGBTQ rights felt too hurrying and excited, and I needed a soothing vacation inside folded wax paper.
Monica Bulova, a blonde girl looking to be in her late twenties, became my physical therapist. She helped me get my muscles back in shape in a tiny room with a person-sized tub of water inside.
“Easy does it,” she said. “You need to try to move your hands and arms like this.” She made a small gesture up and down and wiggled her feet, twisting her legs. I was so depressed and traumatized that I wanted to just lay there and vegetate in bed being fed creamed corn and cheap hamburgers by the nurses. The track marks in my arms healed.
Monica wore a scowl on her face, and she never smiled. I saw her white teeth when she talked. She seemed to be there for a paycheck. Her long hair hung over her thin shoulders, and her girlish arms could not pick me up in my swimming trunks by themselves, so I had to try my best to tense my withered muscles to help her get me in the pool. Her camisole contrasted with her tent skirt. She looked like a yuppie Barbie girl.
“You just need to work hard and you’ll get to where you want to be in life. It’s a freer country than it ever was,” she said. “You’re a charity case. Once you’re able to feed yourself, you’ll be out on your own,” she said. “Pick yourself up off the wall where you fell and get back to work. This place is the land of opportunity. Anyone can become rich through the wonders of the market. If you need a steak, a car, health insurance, or an operation or even heroin,” she would say. “There’s a market for it, for everything. There’s nothing more efficient.”
She spoke of markets as if they were a religious calling. I asked her about the heroin and she said, “You can buy heroin in a store” — which scared me about how easy it would be to get back on the stuff.
Monica always complained about how little the hospital paid her, the line at the coffee shop, bad drivers that cut her off because no one knew how to drive except her, and not making enough money to buy a new-model car. “I’m glad they have the death penalty,” she said. If only she could be in a supervisory position so she did not need to work with her hands.
The day she was born was the same day an all-Libertarian Congress, President Rand Paul came into power, and the Supreme Court had seven justices that did away with old cobwebs and the maze of regulations that strangled the economy, making America free again like it was in 1820. “The stock market always goes up,” she said. It all gave me a sense of horror but my helplessness told me not to argue with this young woman whom I relied on when I started to be able to form words again. Sometimes tears came back to my eyes because of all I lost, and she told me to cheer up and that I have to be an enterprising and rugged individual to succeed.
“The gun shop sells hollow point rounds,” she said. “They cost just a little bit more, but the peace of mind of being able to stop a mugger or evil person in their tracks makes me feel so reassured.”
“Wow, so you have a gun?” I said.
“I open carry a pink lacquered niner in my holster,” she said. “I have to check it in the hallway with my jacket. It matches my outfits when I go out to the shooting range.” She pulled my arm to get me out of the tub into my wheelchair.
I made progress to the point where I had the ability to move my arms without restriction and tilt the joystick of my wheelchair to make it pivot and move where I wanted it to go and twist the fork in the hospital spaghetti to pick it up to my mouth to eat it. I zoomed through the hallways on my electric wheelchair to and from my bed to physical therapy. My tears stopped bursting out of my eyes every time I thought of my grim future.
I made progress and my time came. Winter became Spring. My brother walked into the room flanked by one of the doctors who held a thick binder. He handed me auburn-dyed jeans and a dark t-shirt.
“Here’s a change of clothes,” Tony said.
“It’s time to go,” the pockmarked doctor said. “The hospital is no longer responsible for your well-being.” He handed me the heavy bundle of papers and flipped to the back. “This is an itemized bill of how much you are responsible for. You can work it off over the years.” I looked at the bill and it was seventy-five with a lot of zeros attached to it. My mood dropped.
We left the hospital through the sliding doors. The park in front of us had a life-size bronze statue of an old man on a pedestal, holding an important looking sheet of paper. An engraved gold-tone metal plate under it read, “Ron Paul and the Constitution.” Plastic bags blew in the breeze. Soda and beer cans were randomly scattered all over the place.
“Never heard of that guy,” I said.
“He was a visionary, the chief upholder of Libertarian values.”
“Well, whatever.” I knew not to discuss politics with my brother; he had crazy ideas. He thought the moon landing was a hoax and FEMA trailers were gas chambers.
We got into the parking lot and the cars seemed very different from before. They all looked like flimsy metal boxes. I rolled by and Tony walked past them and a steel casket with room for two people to sit vertically that resembled a metal coffin was parked before us.
“This is my car,” Tony said.
He dumped me into the passenger side. I could not buckle up since there was no safety belt.
“I bought this scaled-down chariot for a good price. There’s no burdensome regulations on things these days, so I don’t need a license or insurance,” he said.
I saw a pistol tucked in plain view where the drink holders would be. It scared me a bit. “I heard about the guns. Why do you open carry?”
“Well there ain’t police in this area, except for hire.” He picked it up in his hand and put it back. “Liberty, just as the Founders envisioned.”
“Is this place dangerous?”
“We are in a kind of rough area, but nothing ever happens. I always keep a pistol on the dash just in case, like most Americans. It’s safe because everyone walks around with a gun.”
“So… there aren’t police to harass me when I smoke a blunt on the corner?”
“If there were, they couldn’t bother you. Everything is legal now, even heroin — no more Nanny State,” he said. “But that don’t mean you should do it just because you have the freedom to. Come on, we gotta get goin’.” He tilted the key in the ignition of his car and drove out of the parking lot. The loud cranking engine vibrated the entire automobile.
“I’m just gonna stick to smokin’ herb; weed’s not a drug.” A tear went down my eye.
“You can get pot at the same place you get everything else — it’s called the Dry Goods Store. Most of them are open twenty-four hours a day, every day. Please stop with the heroin; I want my brother to stay alive.”
“Wow, I’m glad I woke up in this era,” I said as the thought of heroin sent chills down my spine.
“It’s a New America, one where we can finally call ourselves free as the Founders saw it. It used to be a socialism before.” He emphasized the last sentence with disgust.
I saw the decrepit homes in neglect out the window. The whole neighborhood seemed like a natural disaster had struck. I saw yards with broken fences and grates on the windows. A mess of graffiti covered all the brick walls of buildings near the sidewalk. A two-storey house that was once painted baby blue now looked blackish with the shingles detached and coming loose from the uneven warped roof. I could see the exposed wood of the framing and missing siding along the body of the many buildings. Thickets of weeds grew where grass once did. The layout of everything hadn’t changed, but the names of the streets were different: ‘Main Street’ was ‘Milton Friedman Avenue’; ‘Maple Court’ became ‘Ayn Rand Way.’ We kept driving through many potholes. We hit a huge one and it was obvious to us both that the car had a flat tire.
“The only thing I liked about the past were the roads — whenever you drive into a poor area, the bad pavement can bust your tire,” Tony said.
Tony pulled over to the sidewalk and opened the trunk to get a fresh tire out and a car jack.
A row of people formed something like a gauntlet lining both sides of the street around us. They wore cheap wrinkled clothing and waved cardboard signs saying things like ‘Need Food,’, ‘Medicine,’, ‘Will Work for Food’, etc. Tony waved his hand and shooed them away.
“What’s up with everyone needing money?” I said.
“Yeah, these are the people that I don’t have to pay taxes to take care of. This is called Beggars Alley,” my brother said. “They come here to wait on the breadlines. As you can probably tell, panhandling is legal.”
Seeing the dirty-faced beggars with unwashed clothes made me feel something: I realized my old job as a secretary at the hedge fund was gone from my life and I missed it. They must have had an easy time finding someone to jot down notes in investor meetings and answer phones. This place seemed like both a post-apocalyptic world and a wonderful haven where I could do drugs without the overzealous authorities interfering. I took a deep breath. Pushing the plunger down on a syringe full of heroin used to give me a dreamy sense of euphoria and calmness; the feeling that everything was going to be ok and nothing mattered. With the tire replaced by a new spare, we drove past the beggars. Gunshots or firecrackers could be heard in the distance.
“Usually people dropcontest here around noon. Nothing to be worried about,” Tony said.
“What’s that mean?”
“Oh… should we still call the police?”
“Like I said, there are no cops here. The taxation to pay for them is theft.”
What a terrible world! One person could kill another and it was commonplace.
The crooked road divided around like an artery, and the houses became smaller shacks made of soda cans with tarps over them and lean walls made of plywood. We stopped for a long time at a red streetlight before a row of cases or coffins that people slept in. A group of five boys in dirty jeans and oil-stained t-shirts stood in a circle on the corner. None of them could’ve been older than twelve. They had short crewcuts and looked like people I might want to have as nephews or stepsons. After shaking and spraying an aerosol can into a black plastic bag, they held the air inside like a makeshift lung, and put the clenched opening to their mouths. Their lips and all their equipment had a lining of blue paint around them.
“Those kids are huffing paint,” I said. I used to smoke pot at that age. Inhaling household chemicals was a real cheap way to get high.
“Yea, I’ve seen them there before.”
“Shouldn’t they be in school at this time?”
“There are no public schools. They’ve been replaced with private ones. Those kids should probably be at work.”
“So, kids have to work now? That’s messed up.” I tried to maintain my composure but let out a sob; what a hovel of inequity.
“We live in a productive society. Not everyone needs to be educated. Those kids probably work at the shoe factory two blocks away. It’s great that I don’t have to pay tax for a school for someone else’s children. The coercion involved in collecting money for these things is immoral.”
The light turned green, and we drove down the road over a hill. A glowing store with neon gold signs that read, “Dry Goods and Liquor” appeared over the horizon. Underneath the large sign, in red script, was, ‘Better Things for Better Living through Chemistry’. The business was the only place not falling apart into disrepair.
“Is this the store you talked about?” I asked.
“That’s it. You should avoid that place.”
“Alright, I will.”
“Down the road, a piece is where I live; it’s not a place that should be carpet bombed. Only white people are allowed to live there.”
My stomach felt tight with anxiety, and I wanted to change the subject fast. I used to have Black and Latino friends before I took a turn for the worse. Me and Devon used to shoot up in an abandoned building and beside an evergreen tree in a park back when he hung around me. Heroin always took away whatever discomfort I had. All I worked for in my protesting days amounted to nothing.
“What is it you do?” I asked.
“I’m a supervisor at a construction company, Tool Incorporated.”
“Good for you. That reminds me; I gotta get a job.”
“You can stay at my house for, at most, two weeks while you look for one. You’d better get to work, or you’ll wind up like one of those beggars living in a cardboard box. I promised Mom that I would take care of you before she died while you ran around with your silly activism and doing heroin. You should work at the factory stitching clothes now that you can use your hands.”
I stopped protesting and being involved with activism a year before my coma. I accepted the ultimatum and we kept driving. The houses started to look in good condition and no garbage littered the area. Lush lawns replaced the dirt mounds, fields of weeds, and yellowed grass. The car stopped shaking like earlier, the road was smooth asphalt. I could remember this part of town was rich, but things seemed even more opulent than before. Blossoming rose bushes, cherry trees, and lilacs alongside koi ponds with fountains decorated the fronts of all the large mansions. The air reeked of pollen. The muscle cars reminded me of vintage sports cars I saw from thirty years ago with tailfins and butterfly doors. He drove into a roundabout with giant stone statues of angels holding the hilts of weapons without the blades at the tops of plows and armored women behind shields aligned in a circle in the center.
“The broken swords symbolize the ending of the military state,” Tony said.
“There’s no wars? That’s really a good thing.”
“There hasn’t been one in twenty years. We’re coming into my side of town.”
We pulled into the driveway of his small blue bungalow. Red, white, and blue curtains covered his front windows like blackout shades. My brother’s decorations showcased his newfound patriotism. He opened the locks on his door and let me inside. The colors of the American flag that were painted on his walls had the same hue as those on the outside of his house. I touched the soft leather of a bright sofa from my wheelchair.
“Many great things have happened since you were gone,” Tony said. He went into his kitchen, filled a glass of tap water, and offered it to me. “This has none of the brain damaging fluoride that it had before.”
“I didn’t know the stuff from the faucet had that,” I said. I drank it down. “There’s a lot of poor people here. Isn’t it wrong that so many people live in squalor?”
“Inequality is good for the economy. It motivates people to work. I’m sure you can remember when people lived for free on taxpayer money. You need a haircut really bad so that you don’t look like a guy who just came out of a heroin-induced coma. Here’s five Plutarcbank dollars.” He handed me a blue piece of thick paper. “You need to get some sun, too.”
“This don’t look like money.”
“Oh yeah, there is no Federal Reserve anymore. Private banks create money. It’s no longer printed out of thin air. This is one of the most competitive on the market and is backed by gold. I’d drive you, but it’s only two blocks away on Route 9 in walking distance past the turn we made. I’m going to watch the Alex Jones Memorial Holocaust instead.”
I wheeled out the door as Tony opened it for me. I went the exact opposite way he told me to, as if guided by the devil’s invisible hand, towards the Dry Goods Store with the mystery money I had. The sidewalks had jagged ramps on them, so I had to gain speed to go through with my wheelchair. Everyone on that street had a pistol in a holster displayed on their belt. It reminded me of those old movies about the Wild West. Seeing everyone armed except the small children made me a bit scared and excited as I kept the analog stick in full throttle towards that store. A man wearing a duster and a cowboy hat strode across the street, smoking a joint down the busy street, with an Uzi strapped across his torso visible inside the opening of his coat.
I saw the recreational drug store shining in the distance. The clean polished exterior glittered with gold lights. It was soft on the eyes in stark contrast to the dilapidated and oppressed appearance of the surrounding neighborhood. The anticipation made me grin as if I’d already indulged.
I entered through the revolving doors. An assortment of glass jars behind the counter held the white and yellow powders I craved. I felt awestruck – as if affordable flights around the solar system existed. I did not see what my brother saw in the New America, but I saw what I wanted organized and labeled in golden letters and with a neat presentation before me. The inside resembled a military installation with steel walls and floors and bulletproof glass windows. Signs there read, ‘Gold dollars or Gold only,’ ‘No Bitcoin’, ‘Heroin Special — only 5 cents a milligram’, and ‘Crack starter kit $1.25’.
I waited on the back of the line behind a group of two young men and two girls. They probably just started doing drugs since they had clean clothes and all their teeth. After they bought their methamphetamine, the substance-addled youth left. I smiled at the slender pale woman and I came up to talk through the holes in the poly-whatever glass. She was at most my age the last time I shot up. She wore thick glasses that matched her brown hair.
“Heroin, please,” I said.
“What type? We got three kinds in today: china white, black tar, and regular.”
“How much for the black tar?” I never felt so giddy before in my life. I could not get that type of heroin on the street. “Do you sell needles?”
“Why, yes we do, and black tar costs about five cents a milligram.”
Pure exhilaration rendered me unable to do the math.
“Please just give me all you can give me for this money and all the other stuff I need.”
“Alright, that’s twenty-five cents for the works — including the cooker spoon, cotton, tourniquet and lighter — and four seventy-five worth of black tar heroin. You’ll also need the saline liquid, so we’ll throw it in for free.”
She took out a vial double the size of a pencil eraser and used a small spoon and a digital scale to measure the stuff on top of a wax wrapper. After a few movements of the miniature utensil over the jar of black powder and weighing, the small container had the desired amount, and she closed the vial with its attached cap. She got the rest of the works from under the counter. I watched in astonishment with the realization that I was buying dope in a legit store.
After I paid through the slot, the cashier put the goods on the glass shelf and rotated them to me. I reached up and grabbed my purchase.
“Have a nice day, sir,” she said.
“You know I’ll have a nice day,” I said.
On my rolling out of the store, I realized I just bought the good stuff. I had to try not to overdose again. Awe swept over me — I had probably a week’s supply of smack for the price of a haircut. A great New America! My beliefs echoed those of my half-brother but for different reasons. This black tar would give me a good nod, especially since I went without it for thirty years. The fear of death or another coma scared me, but not enough to cease me from going through with my plan. Sadness over the now future, the friends I had that probably died or got thrown in jail, girlfriends that no longer wanted to see me, my thirty years asleep, and wasted opportunities entered my mind, but these thoughts didn’t stay there; hope came to me because in a little while I would be somewhere else, free to not care about anything. I just had to set everything up to get teleported to bliss. The drug would launch me into the stars to lean on the Milky Way.
I wheeled myself to a picnic table behind the store in broad daylight and tied my right arm with the plastic band to make it easier to find my fresh veins with my left arm. A thin man in dingy clothing shuffled away from the area like he just got his fix when I started the ritual. I put a glob of the sticky black tar powder onto the spoon, put some of the injection liquid on the utensil and heated it with the fire from the lighter until it got hot. The thick heroin mixture did not all dissolve in the special water even with the heat, so I stirred the liquid with the end of the needle, trying hard not to spill it. Once the water turned brown without any residue in it, I took the tiny cotton ball (made specifically for this undertaking) and stuck it with the tip of the needle. I put the pointed hollow edge inside the makeshift filter in the center of the spoon and pulled back on the plunger, filling the syringe barrel with liquid heroin.
“Freedom,” I told myself. I stuck the needle inside the blueish outline of a vein in the bend of my arm and saw a plume of blood go up in the chamber. I pushed the plunger down. “Freedom.”
Copyright Frederick Frankenberg 2021