By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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The pills are about the size of a bing-cherry pit in diameter and are a faint green color, like the eggs of some songbirds. On one side they have a deeply inscribed SZ, on the other, the number 789. They are Ritalin, the ten-milligram kind. Imogene knows them by sight because occasionally patients admitted to the psychiatric ward where she works as a nurse have containers of assorted pills, and she has learned to spot the ones that will get her high.
When Imogene discovers the ten Ritalin in the pill container attached to a new patient’s key chain, she deftly transfers them to a kleenex and tucks them under the waistband of her control-top panty hose. She then goes into the supply closet and slips four insulin syringes into her bra.
In the morning, at home, she collects the necessary supplies and brings them upstairs to her study. She crushes the pills thoroughly in a bowl using the bottom of a glass, careful not to lose even a speck. She transfers the powder to a bottle cap and adds a small amount of warm tap water and a piece of cotton. Then she unwraps a clean syringe and puts the tip of the needle into the piece of cotton floating on the cloudy soup in the cap. Pulling back slowly on the plunger, she watches the barrel of the syringe fill with opaque fluid.
Injecting drugs, especially drugs not meant to be injected, takes a staggering disregard for one’s body. Imogene is aware of this, but only in a distant way, the way she might be aware of a bloody coup in an African nation: the news is sad, yes — more evidence of how horrible life really is — but it seems somehow out of her control.
Imogene is what is known as a “chipper” — an occasional drug user. She doesn’t buy pills on the street. She doesn’t drive to a Boston ghetto and cop heroin. She simply goes about her business as a nurse, and if in the course of that business she stumbles across a few pills, they find their way into her pocketbook and eventually into her veins: tap water, additives, coloring, preservatives, and all.
Shooting up is a tricky business and requires a steady hand. Sometimes Imogene uses the veins in the crook of her elbow, but she has to be judicious about it. The puncture bleeds when the needle is withdrawn, and the blood leaking beneath the skin leaves suspicious bruises. She can also use the veins in the back of her hand, but since she has a mammogram coming up in a few days, she’s reluctant to chance leaving marks there that the nurse could see. In the interest of discretion she settles on the veins in her feet.
With one of the many colorful scarves she wears to dress up her nursing uniforms, Imogene ties off her left ankle, so that the veins below the tourniquet will swell. Lifting her foot to her desktop, she surveys the instep. One large vein has popped up nicely. She takes the loaded syringe and turns it bevel up, as she was taught years ago by a dope fiend named Gill.
Gill was a well-built, winsome man of Irish ancestry, an adjunct professor at an Ivy League college near where Imogene lives in Vermont. She had first gone to him on a friend’s recommendation, looking for acid. He didn’t have any and offered her heroin instead.
Why did she buy it? She had heard all the horror stories. She was forty years old and had a child, a husband, a house.
It was because she had that certain combination of personality traits — creativity, fearlessness, impatience, a love of excitement, and a lack of respect for rules — that can do great good if channeled in the right direction but otherwise leads to self-destruction. Furthermore, even as a child she’d never wanted to be exactly where she was. It had always seemed to her that life was lacking some vital ingredient. For Imogene there had never been enough approval, admiration, comfort, or love. She felt she wasn’t quite smart enough or beautiful enough. She was missing the part of the brain that was happy with sunsets, good food, purring cats, and engaging books.
In first grade she’d started writing poems. She believes now that she saw writing as a way to ease her alienation. She hoped that life, meticulously described, parsed, and edited, could finally become what it was supposed to be. It did not help that her father drank too much and sometimes was physically violent. It did not help that her mother, who was tired of children, poverty, and dashed dreams, died of cancer when Imogene was twelve. It did not help that Imogene was hypersensitive and easily wounded, yet paradoxically lacking in fear. Everyone has a story, an exquisitely precise set of circumstances. It may sound like an excuse, but the truth is that our childhoods shape us like clay, and then the years glaze and bake us till there is no way we can change who we are without breaking something.
In short, Imogene loved getting high. Sometimes drugs could make the world seem right for hours at a time.
So, recklessly, she bought from Gill some white powder wrapped in a square of wax paper. At first she simply snorted it, but on her next buy Gill offered to show her how to shoot up. It was not too different from starting an IV or drawing blood at work. And once she’d learned to inject, there was no going back to snorting.
There had been a time in Imogene’s life when she’d cut her forearms with razor blades to relieve her distress. Once she began shooting up, though, the cutting ceased. She sees now that injecting drugs into her veins is a type of cutting: a violation of the body, a thumbing of the nose at notions of safety and self-preservation.
That was more than ten years ago. Gill gradually lost his ability to mimic a normal life. He grew pale, stopped combing his long yellow-gray hair, wore shirts to class with blossoms of blood on the sleeves. Finally he got fired and disappeared. But he lives on in Imogene’s memory. She thinks of him every time she holds a needle, remembers his saying, “Washy, washy the hands first. Never neglect hygiene. Vive Monsieur Pasteur,” and, “Bevel up, touch the top of the vein, make a twenty-degree angle, and tap, tap. . . .”
Imogene bought heroin only a few times from Gill, but from then on she sought out any opiates she could find. Sometimes she got them from other people’s medicine cabinets, and sometimes she got them at work, and sometimes she bought them online, and sometimes she was straight for months at a time, but always she succumbed again.
She taps the needle into the vein, pulls back on the plunger, sees the telltale spiral of blood in the barrel, and then empties the contents into her bloodstream. She loosens the scarf, pulls the needle out, and places her finger firmly on the puncture wound, where a bead of blood has risen. Putting pressure on the spot for a minute or so, she looks outside. It is June and the lilacs are still blooming, sending their scent through her open window. The rush from Ritalin is mild. With stronger drugs, like Oxycontin, the payoff is greater: a chemical taste in the mouth followed by a warmth spreading throughout the body and a tingling in the fingers. Ritalin simply makes her feel more interested in the minutiae of life. She can see her half-grown chickens in their pen, scratching at the cracked corn she scattered for them earlier. When she lets them out of their hutch in the morning, they act as if they’ve never seen the world before. They flap their wings with unrestrained glee and stretch each hind leg separately with yogic concentration.
Glancing at her computer screen, Imogene sees it is almost ten o’clock. She is going to miss her yoga class, but that’s OK. Imogene has been going to yoga daily for almost two years, and though her body has shaped up considerably, she remains impatient with life. She likes people less and less as she ages. She loves just a few, including her sisters and her husband, Ed, who is on his yearly trip to Alaska to visit his sons from his first marriage. The only person she loves with heart-melting fervor is her daughter, Delia.
Early in her nursing career Imogene possessed a vast, tender, humor-tinged affection for her fellow humans. She could shrug off their whining and pathetic posturing, forgive them their soft rolls of fat, their greasy hair and ripe whiteheads. It’s hard for her to remember when this talent deserted her, it happened so slowly. (She has been a nurse for almost three decades.) She suspects it was during her fifteen years in AA, when she failed to “come to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” (Step Two.) She prayed on her knees, as instructed by various sponsors, called said sponsors daily, went to endless meetings, read the “Big Book,” meditated, and waited. But never, not once, did she sense or even imagine an entity more powerful than herself. A deity who was aware of Imogene in all her specificity; Imogene with all her faults, biographical details, needs, and scars. An omnipotent being who was not only aware but ready to guide her, give her strength and succor, lead her forward to a life “second to none,” as they like to say in AA. If Imogene had a higher power, then it was willfully choosing not to save her while saving others who were far less deserving, in her opinion: people who spoke in meetings, with grammar-impaired passion, about how God, in one blinding moment, had removed their desire to drink or use. And God had done any number of other things for them while he was at it: saved their marriage, helped them find a job, cured their cancer, found their lost cat. These testimonials had the opposite of the intended effect on Imogene, who shifted in her folding chair and suppressed snorts of disbelief. She wanted nothing to do with such a capricious God. Had he deserted earthquake victims dying alone under tons of concrete in some distant land so he could make sure Jimmy Jabberwock didn’t take a drink? What was God’s explanation for the abattoir called “human history”? Could the promise of heaven possibly make up for Pol Pot, Idi Amin, or Dick Cheney?
Imogene remained at Step Two for fifteen years before she stopped going to AA. The only power she’d found that was greater than herself was drugs, which is why she had such respect for them.
The subtlety of the Ritalin high is OK with Imogene. She does not do this so that she can slouch half-lidded in front of a TV with a cigarette dangling from her fingers, the way addicts do in movies. She takes drugs so that she can participate more enthusiastically in life. Like right now: she could write or go outside to her garden and weed her neat rows of carrots and beets or move flowers from one spot to another or deadhead the daffodils. Gill had been like this, too. He used to shoot up and then sit with a pad on his knee doing math problems.
It is an achingly beautiful day outside — gloriously, buzzingly fecund as only northern climes can be during their limited months of growth and reproduction. Vermont is a manic-depressive landscape: warm and alive now, but so cold and dead in winter that you almost cannot imagine it any other way.
Imogene resists the urge to go outside and prod her tiny acreage into further productivity. Her potatoes are already a foot high. She has radishes, lettuces, asparagus, and spinach. The river that forms the eastern boundary of her land is no longer turbid with spring runoff and has warmed almost to the point of being swimmable. As always the current has dislodged some of the rocks that protect her bank, and she thinks about going out and standing in the water, piling the loose stones back up, marrying jagged pieces with one another, finding ways for them to fit snugly, incorporating lengths of driftwood as anchors. But instead she sits looking at her computer screen. She has not tried to write for a long time — months, it seems. As the human race has grown more distasteful to her, so has the effort of saying something meaningful about a culture infected with decadence and despair, cracking under the weight of useless wars, its people grasping at dreams that are increasingly out of reach, kept acquiescent by television and scratch-off tickets, hoodwinked by unscrupulous politicians and tycoons who have no goals but to keep their power and amass obscene wealth. Imogene does not want to write unless she has something new to say. The problem is, if she doesn’t write, the current of time wears away at her, leaving her even more listless, demoralized, and vulnerable to despair.
Though Imogene doesn’t believe in God, her thoughts are haunted by the idea of a deity, a dispenser of happy endings. If she tries to enjoy life’s mundane offerings, a voice in her head tells her she’s failing at some great, undefined mission. It’s the voice of a ghostly, amputated God, like a phantom limb, an active absence throbbing in her brain.
It may be that her struggles to say something new are like the rocks she has piled on the riverbank, literally tons of them, dumped on her land by trucks year after year and dropped by her into the mud. Each winter the fingers of ice seize and displace them; the silt under them washes away, and they sink or roll toward the center of the channel. But before that, they have each played their small part in protecting her world.
As she ponders this, Imogene prepares another syringe.
That night at work at the VA hospital, Imogene has to deal with a difficult patient. He is so annoying that he fascinates her. She keeps thinking she should write down everything he says, make a study of him, but after her morning Ritalin bender it’s all she can do to stay upright at the nurses’ desk, looking at the news on the Internet. She is sweating profusely, her makeup running down her face.
The patient, whose name is Craig, acts as if he has Ritalin in his veins. He won’t be still. He is thin and has big glasses and pointed ears. Imogene likes to exaggerate, but she is not exaggerating about his ears. They actually come to points, as if they were clipped at birth like the ears of a Doberman pinscher. Craig very rarely stops talking, and when he does, it is only to give a cackle so strangled it sounds like a caricature of a laugh. He speaks in rapid-fire sentences, delusions mixed haphazardly with fact until it is hard to tease the two apart. He jumps from his blighted childhood in the backwoods of Maine to his experiences at boot camp, to his father’s Cadillac with its secret compartments, to code breakers disguised as lunch boxes, to the cloven devil prints he’s seen in the woods behind the hospital — always leaving out the tenuous links among these subjects. He claims to have post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in Vietnam, though he is only forty-six, which would mean he either joined the Marines when he was nine or fought in Vietnam in 1980. In fact, his records reveal that he never made it through boot camp. He was medically discharged, given disability, and turned loose on the world. Since that time he has bounced from psych ward to psych ward, refusing medication, demanding treatment for nonexistent medical conditions, and learning garbled jargon like akathisia, homeostasis, gestalt therapy, neurotransmithers (his pronunciation), and serotonin. In fact, he will sprinkle any new word he has heard into his conversation so as better to mimic sanity.
At this very moment Craig is hovering over Imogene at the desk, playing with the patient sign-out sheets. Patients who have off-ward privileges are supposed to write down when they leave and where they are going, and they are expected to check back in at half-hour intervals. Many are lackadaisical about this rule, but Craig takes it seriously. Imogene does her best to ignore him, her eyes fixed on her computer. To get her attention, he takes all the sheets from the clipboard and, as noisily as he can, taps them side and bottom until they are aligned. The whole time he does this, he is muttering, as if his thoughts must be broadcast to everyone. He shakes the pen, examines the tip, coughs, and looks at the clock on the wall. “Seventeen thirty-six,” he says, using military time. He glances at his watch and mumbles, “Seventeen thirty-four.” He waits to see if Imogene will pick up on this possibly critical discrepancy, but she refuses to engage with him.
“Are your clocks accurate?” Craig asks.
“Close enough,” she says.
“Close doesn’t count except in hand grenades and horseshoes,” Craig says, and he lets out his piercing cackle, which morphs into a cough, then a hack. He leans forward with his hands on his knees, forcing gusts of air from his lungs. “Oh, Lord,” he says. “It’s that bronchitis again. I almost died from it, you know. The doctor in Manchester said if I’d come in an hour later, I’d have been toast. My lungs are weak anyway because in boot camp they sprayed us with mace. I kid you not. I’ve seen files you wouldn’t believe — top secret, my eyes only. I spoke to President Bush the other day—” He breaks off and hawks phlegm into his palm, then holds out his hand to Imogene so she can examine the sample. “See, it’s that pseudomona again!”
“Craig, do not — I repeat, do not — spit into your palm.”
“Go to the bathroom right this minute and wash your hands.”
“But you need this sample! It’s green. The doctor in Manchester told me—”
“Bathroom,” Imogene says, pointing. She has discovered that her replies to Craig must be simple and short to cut through the flurry of explanations he is always ready to give as proof that there is a reason for what he does and that his life is actually a coherent series of incidents, none of them his fault, that have hurled him from crisis to crisis while he steadfastly battles the Antichrist. (Though he is hesitant to reveal it, he believes he is the Second coming of Jesus. He calls the Antichrist, with some affection, “AC.”)
Craig turns and heads to the bathroom, where Imogene hears him hacking again and then the water running in the sink. When he comes out, she makes him get some sanitizer from the dispenser on the wall and rub it into his palms.
Imogene wishes Craig would leave so she could look up cannibalism on the Internet. She has a deep morbid streak, which worries her husband. He suspects that her fascination with macabre subjects feeds some part of her that is better left unsatisfied.
Imogene can’t satisfy it now anyway, because Craig is not about to abandon his captive audience. The other patients avoid Craig, so he is forced to interact with nurses, security guards, and the occasional unwary visitor who doesn’t know him. It takes these unfortunates only a few minutes to realize that Craig is actively nuts, and it amuses Imogene to see the awareness begin to shimmer in their eyes as they search for an excuse to break away.
Imogene googles “cannibalism” anyway and discovers that it was practiced by the Zhuang people in China during the Cultural Revolution. There is a book about it, which she thinks she might buy.
“I need my puffer,” Craig says.
He means his albuterol inhaler, which he sucks on with gusto every few hours. It makes him jittery, but this is not a drawback in his book.
Imogene rises from her seat and goes to the med cart. Her left foot hurts, and there’s swelling on the instep from a botched injection.
In order to give Craig his puffer, she has to open the med-cart computer, enter her password, go into the application, enter another password, scan Craig’s wristband, use a code to open the cart drawer, scan the bar code on the inhaler, enter the reason for the use of the inhaler, enter the number of puffs administered, then return the inhaler to the drawer, shut down the computer, and lock the cart. She has no sooner done all this than Craig says, “Do I have a Naprosyn due? My foot is killing me. I can barely walk. I was shot in the ankle once. I was shot in the heart, too, three times, but I lived. And do you know why? The Lord has plans for me. Some people think it’s odd that I believe I am a certain important person, but there’s no law against it. This is a free country, right? I—”
“Why didn’t you ask when the cart was open?” Imogene says.
“You forgot the excruciating pain in your foot?”
“Yeah, you know, I’ve got so much stuff on my mind, and that Seroquel they are giving me scatters the crap out of my brain.”
“Let me see your foot,” Imogene says.
Craig lifts his right leg and proudly displays a crack in the dry, horny skin of the heel.
“That’s nothing,” Imogene says. “It’s just dry skin.”
“Well, can you make a bandage for it?” Craig asks.
“No, it doesn’t need one. Put a little bacitracin on it at night and wear a sock.” She opens the cart, pulls out a foil packet of antibiotic ointment, and hands it to Craig.
“You know, you’re a beautiful lady,” Craig says. “A beautiful lady and a wonderful nurse. You always know just what I need.”
Imogene does not reply.
“Can I have some socks?” he asks.
The patients are all mad for the VA-issued footies, which are made of terry cloth and have skid-resistant soles.
“Don’t you have some?” Imogene asks.
“I threw them away.”
“Don’t throw them away,” Imogene says.
“But they had grass stains and shit on them from when I went into the woods — you know, doing my nature thing. I love nature. It’s all I need. When I go up there, all my cares fall away, and my body returns to homeostasis.”
“Wear them with shoes, then,” Imogene says, and she walks to the supply closet, where she enters a code on the door lock and grabs several pairs of the socks. (When the other patients see Craig’s new socks, they will want some, too.)
Soon Craig’s nicotine level has fallen low enough that he must go outside and smoke. This means he will be gone for at least ten minutes. Thank God for cigarettes. He signs out, and this time he manages to deal with the small discrepancy between the wall clock and his watch.
Imogene signs back onto her computer and returns to reading about the book on cannibalism. She’s not sure why she does this. It’s as if she must research every gut-wrenching example of human mayhem, must know how long it takes a man to die when a burning tire is hung around his neck, must absorb the distraught testimonials of those who have had limbs severed with machetes. Why does she want such details? It has something to do with pain. She’s seeking evidence that, though there is no God, there is at least some biological gate developed over the course of evolution that allows the mind to exit the body when the pain is too much, so that the agony becomes distant and somehow bearable. Though the body may still twitch and scream, the mind itself has left and is almost gratefully enjoying its first taste of eternal silence.
The next morning at home, amply inspired by a few shots of Ritalin, Imogene can barely wait to get upstairs to her study for a day at the computer. The backs of her hands and the crooks of her arms are bruised and inflamed. She could not find enough spots on her feet. Each location becomes useless after only one injection, because the dissolved Ritalin makes the veins redden and swell. Her extremities now resemble an old woman’s, mottled and puffy.
She can hear her daughter outside with her friend Annie, who is a musician, like Delia. They are both twenty-three but giggle and prattle with the abandon of ten-year-olds. Imogene has told them she is writing and will come down later, and it’s true: she is writing. But every page or so she breaks off, fills a syringe, and looks for some undiscovered vein to destroy. The contrast between Delia and Annie’s innocent delight and Imogene’s gruesome preoccupation is stark even to Imogene, who is generally good at rationalizing her dips into darkness.
Imogene would not call herself “insane,” but on this particular morning, with her hands and feet swollen and her pulse pounding at 120 beats per minute and despair so close she can feel its hot breath on her neck, she certainly feels mad. If it weren’t for the complicated logistics of getting into a mental hospital, she would probably consider that solution. But the Republicans or the medical establishment or the insurance companies have made it much harder to get into the loony bin. You must say you want to kill yourself or someone else. You can inject Ritalin till your head pops off, smoke endless cigarettes, steal your sister’s wine, lie to your child, feel excruciating jolts of self-loathing in your chest, and still not be considered suitable for commitment. The medical establishment is happy to ignore you as you flail and gasp and shout for help. It is only when you are about to break certain laws that they will admit you.
Imogene isn’t suicidal. She doesn’t want to die; she wants to live. She wants to find her way to a better life, one in which she doesn’t abuse her body to the point of incipient sepsis, doesn’t steal pills, doesn’t drink in the morning. She wants to be able to take pleasure in the sight of her sturdy young daughter pedaling up the road to her aunt’s house. Imogene wants to feed her chickens, weed her garden, jump in the water. She wants to get a rowboat and float to the part of the river south of her house where the mink are denning, and she wants to sit there with her binoculars, observing the mink kits as they peer at her from between the roots of the trees that line the bank. She wants to find their dry scat, silver with fish scales, and crumble it between her fingers. She wants to watch the Canada geese go on patrol with their strings of eager goslings marching between the goose and the gander, the little ones learning all they must learn before, suddenly large and fully feathered, they will follow their parents on the dangerous journey south.
This is what she must live for: the daily offerings of the natural world; the sounds, sights, and scents that it has to give, moment by moment.
Imogene sits looking at her computer screen for a full fifteen minutes, trying to remember the difference between effect and affect. She removes a comma and changes the word inscrutable to tenuous. Perhaps this is what has kept her stuck for so long: She has tried to lock herself into sentences and paragraphs that will always, always be. She has sought permanence in a world where there is none. She has thought that if she gets her words just right, they will last forever — she will last forever. It shouldn’t surprise her that her problem has come down to something as basic as this, the fear of death. She wishes she could be monklike, impassively suffering everything the universe has to throw at her. She decides without much conviction that she wants to get sober again, but at the same time she concludes that it is not unreasonable to taper off drugs slowly. If she doesn’t, she will be useless for a few days, and she can’t afford that. Imogene has no trust fund, no devoted servants to tend to her while she has her ladylike “nervous breakdown.” She has to work again tomorrow, after only one day off, and it is imperative that she continue to function, even if her definition of function would not pass the scrutiny of qualified professionals. Her inflamed veins will eventually recover from their trauma.
In the meantime she gets a saucer, crushes a Ritalin, and snorts it through a rolled-up dollar bill. Then she returns to her computer to read over the ten pages she has written.
It is amusing to take out a word here and add a word there, but it’s not getting her any closer to a finished product. She’s just not in the right frame of mind to pour out a story. She knows from experience that a small amount of alcohol on top of the Ritalin can have a salubrious effect, but she has no alcohol in her house; she makes it a practice to keep the premises dry. Her sister Bitty, however, who lives just a few hundred yards up the road, has ample supplies.
Imogene bikes to her sister’s house. They have an arrangement: Imogene gives her sister two dollars and goes to her refrigerator to get a glass of white wine. Then she bikes back home and sits in front of her computer, ready to let it rip.
She manages a few stilted pages before, all too soon, inertia settles on her hunched shoulders. Delia’s friend has gone, and Imogene can hear Delia putting strings on her guitar and tuning it, getting each note to sound just as it should through some melodic sense Imogene doesn’t possess. Imogene stubs out her cigarette, grabs a pillow from her bed, and goes into Delia’s room.
“Play something for me,” she says.
“I don’t have a lot of new songs,” Delia admits. She, too, has been in a creative slump.
“How about a ballad?” Imogene suggests. “I need to hear you sing. It will cheer me up.”
She lies on the floor with a pillow under her head, and Delia strums some chords. She finally settles on Bob Dylan: “If you’re travelin’ in the north country fair / Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline / Remember me to one who lives there / She once was a true love of mine.” Delia’s voice is well suited to folk music: throaty, sure, shimmering with emotion. As Imogene lies there, she lets the vibrations from the guitar and the notes from her daughter’s throat flow over her, bringing relief from her anxiety. Imogene is amazed that somehow, in her blundering, sincere, impaired way, she has raised a child of talent and beauty. That must count for something, she thinks. And, better yet, her child is not neurotic, compulsive, and insecure, like her mother. Imogene isn’t sure how much Delia knows about her drug abuse. Delia is aware that Imogene has been an addict and has disappeared from time to time into various rehabs and emerged quiet and chastened. She has heard Imogene swear again and again that she is going to get clean and stay clean. She knows, past protestations aside, that Imogene secretly drinks and smokes cigarettes in her study with the door closed. But Imogene likes to think Delia does not know the extent of her present backsliding.
“Play the one about the long black veil,” Imogene says.
Delia soars into the ballad with practiced ease, and Imogene is inspired to sing along: “She walks these hills in a long black veil / She visits my grave when the night winds wail / Nobody knows, nobody sees / Nobody knows but me.”
It is, like many folk songs, formulaic, but there is something in their singing together that gives Imogene the comfort she needs. After the song has ended, she rises and goes back to her study.
The cure does not last long. Within an hour Imogene is again desperate to change the way she is feeling. If she could shed her skin like a snake, she’d do it. It is at times like this that she impulsively chops off her hair, but her hair is already short. If she cuts off any more, she’ll be bald.
Her idle desire to get sober returns suddenly and with more force. Almost without thinking, Imogene gathers up the dirty syringes she has hidden under her bookcase. She takes the clean syringes, too, and puts them all in a plastic grocery bag. Then she picks up the bottle cap, with its wet remnant of cotton and dissolved pills, and the kleenex with the Ritalin inside it, and all this goes into the bag, as well. A sudden shriek of joy from outside seems to punctuate her actions. It is Delia, going off the rope swing into the cold river.
Imogene ties a knot in the grocery bag. She feels the breeze coming through her window and realizes it is another gorgeous day.
She falls to her knees.
Her sponsors were right about this much, anyway: the kneeling position conveys a certain seriousness of purpose. She has not found God, but she has a strong, curious mind that loves the world for what it is, even without God, even though the earth itself is destined for extinction. On her knees Imogene asks her mind to let her make friends with her self. She vows to nourish and guide that self, to comfort and encourage it like a wayward child and see it through to the very end when, finally, they both are gone, and no trace of them remains.
It does not matter that she has tried and failed to get clean again and again. She’s not a failure. She’s had the will to stop — not for good, but off and on. Waking up sick from withdrawal, she would lie there and think, Oh, God, please let it stick this time. If she would only try as hard to get clean as she does to find the right high, surely she could succeed. She doesn’t know if she can, but it’s not important that she feel certain. What’s important is that she start now, because now is all she’s ever really had.
Though I have no particular fondness for actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, I was saddened when I read that he’d died of a heroin overdose. That night I flipped open the February 2014 issue of The Sun and read Sybil Smith’s short story “Imogene’s Prayer,” which caused me to relive my own Ritalin binges: the confident, cynical, introspective highs; the anxious, remorseful, desperate lows.
Ritalin, heroin, and other drugs were there for me when I refused to be there for myself. I became trapped, unable to deal with life in any other way, even after I’d depleted my bank account, lost my apartment, and drifted through various homes.
I cried at the final scene of Smith’s story, in which Imogene bags up her syringes for the garbage, drops to her knees, and prays. That act seems hopeful, but, having done the same thing multiple times, I knew that she would do it again.