“That’s a Junkie”

Here’s another passage I cut because of the reference to Charley’s students and also because it had more to do with my own life than Charley’s. With subsequent revisions, I got increasingly better at inventing a life for Charley and separating my life from his. In terms of story, these cuts allow the narrative to move along more quickly without getting bogged down in largely irrelevant flashbacks.

“That’s a Junkie”

Instead of saying I was an Academy grad, I told my students I was from Northeast Philadelphia, which was true, to an extent. All my best beatings happened there, and it wasn’t until I started high school that my family moved out to the suburbs. I played ball for the Mayfair Shamrocks, I told my students, on rat-infested fields that were littered with broken liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia. I was an altar boy at Our Lady of Ransom, the church on Route One that was famous for looking like a flying saucer. The guy across the alley from my parents grew pot in his backyard, and my friends and I used to think his tiny arboretum was a wonderful glass clubhouse until we wandered in one day and he came storming out of his basement in sandals and a pink bathrobe, barking obscenities and wielding—we all agreed—a gun, a machete, a hatchet, a baseball bat and a golf club all at once.

We threw bottles to hear them crash and picked through piles of medical waste behind a nearby public health clinic, prizing the discarded dental tools and plaster castings of crooked teeth we found in open trash bins. We roofed each other’s toys and peed in each other’s inflatable swimming pools and ambushed each other with crab apples, and we all rode bikes our uncles had found in the trash, and one day when we were playing on Glenn Steiner’s patio, a junkie came staggering up the sidewalk, coughing up blood and tripping over his own feet. When he fell face-first in the ivy out front, Glenn ran into the house to get his mother, who came hobbling to the front door on crutches because she’d just had corns removed from her toes.

The junkie wore a yellow shirt and greasy blue sweatpants and was crying for someone named David. He had curly hair and tattered sneakers and shivered violently on Glenn Steiner’s ivy. He threw up and rolled over. He hugged himself and cried out for David again. I was six years old. Glenn was seven. We were playing on his patio, and a grown man stumbled up the block, crying like a baby.

“That’s a junkie,” Glenn’s mother said before hobbling inside to call the police. “That’s what happens when you mess with drugs.”

16 comments

  1. The sounds, the visuals, and the understated feelings, become tangible. The simple way it is done, is an eye-opener. I guess it takes practice to achieve this kind of writing. And yet it appears effortless.

  2. This is great, as if I was watching the whole thing, like a movie, I even had to close my eyes and squirm when you mention the teeth – I have a thing with teeth, they gross me out – I don’t know why.
    That piece of writing is so alive.

  3. Interesting how you felt the earlier drafts were too much like your own life and you needed to create a unique life for the character. Same issue I had with the protag of the novel I just finished. Took 6 versions but I think I’ve done it. I would bet this process is similar for most writers.

    1. I think you’re right. As writers, we probably tend to start with the old adage of “write what you know” in mind, but soon we start building on that and write to create something new — that we didn’t know, or that we didn’t know we knew. (Apologies to Donald Rumsfeld.)

  4. Wow.

    Outstanding writing, once again…but, as gritty and well-written as it is, I think that was a good passage to cut, because (IMHestO), it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the tone of The Grievers. It would have taken me out of the story. Now, stick that in a NEW piece of writing and let it shine! It deserves some air!

    But…had that largely been part of your childhood–bravo for reaching beyond your environs, my friend!

    1. My thoughts exactly. And saving it for something else is a good idea. It’s a little like carrying a piece of a jigsaw puzzle or a key around with me wherever I got. Eventually, it’s bound to fit somewhere.

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