Co-winner of the Movable / New Ohio Review Writing Contest
By Kandi Workman
Featured Art: He’s Got the Works, by John Schriner
“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” – Simone Weil
“Drop ’em dead like a dealer.”
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
He turned his slim face away from me, looked toward the muddy Elk River flowing with ease, shifted himself around on the cement ledge, kicking his dangling legs back and forth, bouncing rubber heels off the wall. We’d been sitting there for a while, talking, enjoying the late afternoon in early Spring. In the low light from the sun, the black-lined ice cream cone tattoo on the right side of his face, high on his cheek bone, just under his eye, stood out. I sometimes forget it’s there.
“Drop ‘em dead. That’s when your sales go up. It’s really fucked up. Addicts find out your shit killed somebody, they want your stuff. That’s just how it works.”
Brown eyes. Baneful. Unhappy. Deep. Posture. Leaned back in a wooden dining chair in the living room, long, lanky legs stretched out in front him, crossed at the ankles, arms folded, resting on his torso, head slightly down, eyes up and glaring with a solid, unbreakable expression.
It was my first time taking part in a group discussion in a men’s sober living home. I was there as support, new to the job. He was mandated. It was January.
Being a newbie to this space that is a home, I assumed people would be curious about me or at least mildly annoyed. I felt like an uninvited guest, and hoped my kindness and showing interest would help lay the foundation of establishing trust. I observed the folks in the room, tried learning names, listened to confessions and frustrations. I happened to be sitting directly across the room from him. When scanning the room, I caught glimpses of him watching me. We made eye contact and held our gaze for a moment. I thought I was establishing my dominance in the male-centered space, but his looking back at me was so raw and unintimidated that I felt flush with vulnerability. What is he reading in my eyes? I turned away first.
Ok. I’m bitten. Who are you? What’s your story? I want to know you. Read me and tell me what you see. Actually, don’t. No. Nope. Stop. Because of the intensity of the pull to him, I reminded myself that he was someone I likely needed to stay away from. I am an empath. That kind of magnetic pull could mean he was my opposite—a narcissist, an obstacle to my recovery from codependency.
“When you’re in prison, if you’re a cook, you’re protected.”
Because of that feeling, I stayed away. I would look for him when I knew he was around, acknowledge him, try to have a short interaction, but I avoided working one on one with him, never exchanged numbers, never reached out like I did with others in his house. He, likewise, seemed unbothered by this, often letting me and my coworkers know what a nuisance we were to him. However, when he lost a housemate to overdose and his roommate relapsed in their bedroom, he reached out to me. He said, “I need connection and accountability. I want to work with you. I’ve worked too hard to stay clean and sober this long to be pulled back in.” Six months clean. Twenty-five years old.
“I’m a cook. A meth cook,” he reminded me. “If you can make peanut butter cookies, you can make meth. It’s that simple.”
He pointed to the ice cream cone on his cheek. A prison tat that marked him safe during his six month stay in 2020, identifying him as an important person for people who knew how to read the code. Ice cream is slang for crystal meth, he told me. He was a holler chemist. An Appalachian alchemist who turned Sudafed, battery acid, and drain cleaner into money, destruction, and death. While in prison, he turned bread into booze, made prison ink from soot, and tattooed a Hubble Telescope on a guy’s leg using a straightened staple sharpened to a point. He told me of other ingenious MacGyvering that happens in the pen, how utilitarian and resourceful people are, like turning one cigarette into four and saving syrup packets from breakfast to use as the sugar for alcohol, alcohol as strong as brandy. When it was time for him to leave, he was released early with five years of probation.
“It’s fucked up that I didn’t want to leave, ain’t it. I had everything I needed there.”
I don’t think he was just talking about cigarettes or shelter or food. He had people, stability, security, a community, an identity.
“You know they are trying to get dealers for manslaughter now?” he asked.
“I’ve heard a little, but I haven’t followed.”
“You just let me be on a jury of peers deliberating the outcome for a dealer and see what happens.”
I don’t know what he meant by that, but it stuck with me.
I am tethered to the steady slither of the Elk. The last of the late day sun glistens off the iridescent scales of the river’s skin, that in between place where two worlds meet. Light and water. The catalyst of change.
“I know my stuff killed people. I didn’t kill them. They did that to themselves. But I know my product took some people out. My sister was one of ‘em.”
We intuitively held a moment of silence together, not looking at each other, both staring at the recovering Elk River. The river isn’t what it was before the flood, but it is healing. The fish are coming back, I’m told. Our people aren’t. I don’t think he was waiting for me to pass judgment on him. I also don’t think it was a confession. The way he said it was so intricately intertwined with objective and subjective meanings in his attempt to justify his past and prepare for his undefined future. I pondered on his words, thinking your brain is still young enough to heal, malleable enough to change patterns and behaviors and ways of thinking. It’s not done growing yet. There’s time for change. “The Opposite of Addiction is Connection.” Let it be, brother, in a so it goes world.
He once told me I’m an idealist and to never apologize for it. But we agreed my optimism sometimes lends me to naivete. Recognizing his intelligence and lived experiences are far beyond any guidance I could offer, I held back my words. Words would’ve been futile. His sister’s birthday was five days ago. She overdosed when she was twenty-eight.
“I’ve done things. Horrible things. And while doing them, I found every way in the world to justify what I was doing.” He lit a cigarette. He is right-handed but uses his left hand to strike lighters and cocks his head in an odd way to get his cigarettes burning. He is blind in his right eye.
“The best piece of advice I’ve ever got was from this old guy after I got out of prison: ‘Sometimes you just have to sit in your own shit.’ I believe it, too. You have all these people out there blaming each other for shit that happens to them when they make choices to do what they do. We have to just sit in our own shit.”
A month ago he overheard me talking to myself as I regulated my emotional state during work stemming from personal issues with a woman I was seeing. He made a few small, snarky remarks, so I welcomed him to tell me what he thought of me.
“I’ll tell you when I get out of Kroger. Give me time to get my thoughts together.”
When he came back from getting groceries, he took a deep breath and unleashed.
“You’re a narcissist who comes in to help people like us just to make you feel better about yourself and you celebrate the little things and try to make people feel good—you remind me of my sister—and really you’re just a lonely person who reads books so you can feel less alone. I know. I read, too.”
I looked at him intently. His hands were shaking. I needed time to process what he said before I responded.
What do you know about me? Who are you to call me a narcissist? Why would you even think that? What have I ever done that would give you that impression of me? What do you see in me that reflects you?
Damn, that was brave of him to say. He was even shaking when he said it. I asked him to tell me. I can’t get mad at him for what he said. He’s not joking, either. It was so well put together, he’s thought about this, about me, before now. He had to be observing me all this time. He is the only person who has ever said that to me. Maybe I should consider what he’s said. Maybe I should be honest right now. Is he putting me in my place? Maybe I should let him. Maybe I should be honest right now.
I opened my mouth to speak. All that came out was a trembling, “Yes. Yes, I’m a very lonely person.”
“I know,” he said. The discernment in his “I know” stunned me. I sank into my seat, stupefied. Up to this point he and I had never had a real, genuine conversation like I had with the other guys in the house. He had been around when I engaged with them, but stayed quiet, for the most part, unless he was cutting up and joking. Never serious. Never seemed interested in much that concerned me, and I had kept my distance from him.
“It is the little things, you know. If it weren’t for making a point to recognize the little things and finding purpose in helping people, I probably wouldn’t be here, and not here as in work. I wouldn’t be here at all, as in on this Earth,” I said.
“I know,” he said again.
That he perceived my loneliness and had the courage to call me out on it was profound. He recognized my loneliness and spoke to it. I felt seen.
I started processing out loud. “I’m sure that wasn’t easy to say. I don’t believe your intentions were mean.”
“Not at all. Being a narcissist doesn’t necessarily have to mean a bad thing or that someone’s a bad person.”
“The ego is complex. I’ll give thought to what you said. Thank you.”
“I’m glad you understood what I meant. Most people don’t understand me.”
In the days that followed, reflecting on what he had said, I had a better understanding of my role in the toxicity of my current relationship drama. I knew, and had known for quite some time, that the woman I was seeing was unable to meet my emotional needs. We were not compatible, yet I welcomed the damaging cycle back into my life again and again, over the course of a year and a half. While I used to place most of the blame on her, I couldn’t any longer. My expectations were breeding resentment. Resentment was breeding anger and frustration.
Why are you with her? Is it really out of love and patience, a vision of slowly growing towards each other over a lifetime, hoping for evolution and unity? This is what I believed in the beginning. This is what I wanted to believe a year later, after mutual emotional harm had been sustained. It’s what I told myself. It’s not the truth, though. I no longer looked at her as a potential partner. That ended a long time ago. I realized I looked at her as adventure, as escape, as someone to claim me when I needed a break from the real world, not as someone who could be a part of my everyday life to focus on the menial, important little things. She’s not interested in that. I often thought she was a narcissist, too. Can narcissism be situational, dependent on dynamics? Maybe we all can be narcissists at times.
When I realized what I was doing, I stopped. It wasn’t kind of me to continue a relationship with her when I recognized my faults. Sometimes, you just have to sit in your own shit.
I’m trying to practice this:
“When I get lonely these days, I think: So be lonely. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”
He navigated the list of horrible things he had done, unkind things, unintentional things, dark things, checking them off, one by one. Still, he was not confessing, not asking any god or savior for forgiveness, not asking for grace during this human experience. He was certainly not bragging, either. He was giving me the bits of him that he could not hold all by himself. I swelled with them like a growing Elk River taking on too much water.
“Have you ever thought about suicide?” I asked.
“I mean, when I was younger I thought about dying. I’ve never acted on it.” He lit another cigarette, took a drag. Exhaled. “Well, so, yeah, I’ve wanted to die, lots of times, and I’ve tried. Tried to overdose several times on my own product. Had intentions of not waking up. I just kept jumping back up, though. It wouldn’t take me out. Ironic, isn’t it?”
“I really want to talk to my grandpa. I think he would see me, even though I hurt him. I’m not going to just call him, though. I need to see him face to face, man to man, considering what I done. He cared about me, even when no one else did.”
“Older folks experience time differently than young people. I bet he’d love to hear from you. Don’t wait too long. You will eventually have to forgive yourself if you want to move on,” I said.
You will have to learn how to forgive yourself over and over again. If you experience any guilt or remorse right now, it’s nothing compared to what will weigh on you as you age. You know you hurt your wife. You’re disconnected from your son. You stole from your grandpa. Your sister is dead. Others are dead. If you are one of the lucky ones, you will have a chance to become lots of different versions of yourself over a lifetime, should you choose growth. I want you to grow. I want you to want to grow. I want you to live. I want you to find purpose in living. It can only come at the pace you set.
I didn’t dare say anything like this to him. There’s no need. Change will come with tension and resistance, but not with pressure or guilt from others.
“The thing is, I liked making meth. Aside from the money and the high, I enjoyed cooking it.”
He started dabbling with drugs when he was fourteen, when his mother chose her boyfriend over him and he went to live with his sister for a while. She was nineteen. Her boyfriend was a cook. The boyfriend became a mentor, teaching him the ins and outs of cooking, handling, dealing. By eighteen, he was running hundreds of dollars worth of cold medicine from South Carolina to West Virginia every weekend, which flipped for thousands of dollars with the end product. By nineteen, he was married, had a baby, and was making $1500 to $2000 a day. At twenty, a meth explosion melted the skin and cartilage off his right arm. He spent months in a burn unit receiving care. A skin graft left his arm textured like snake skin. Not long after, he was divorced. Life got harder, darker, more nefarious. Heroin was added to his repertoire.
“So, you like creating.”
“I told you, you could be Mr. Science Teacher of the Year. Your skills and knowledge are transferable. There are other things you can do besides cook meth.”
“Have I ever showed you a picture of my son,” he asked.
I reminded him I didn’t know he had a son until that day. He pulled out his wallet, opened it, took out a small stack of worn pictures—several of his son when he was a baby, one of his grandpa, one of his sister.
“That’s my sister. She’s like me, but with long hair.”
I held her picture in my hand, studied her face, wondered how much he misses her and how often she crosses his mind. He said their relationship was toxic. But, God, how he must’ve loved her. I sat with the emotions rising in my chest, flooded with ache. I wanted to hold his pain for him, be his sin-eater, unhinge my jaw and devour the egg called “Disease of Despair” in one gulp.
“I bet she was something else.”
“She wouldn’t take no shit,” he said with a proud smile. Witnessing how he lit up when he talked about his sister, I had so many questions. How long has it been since you really felt loved? How long has it been since you felt you were capable of loving someone else? Do you feel you deserve love?
“There are fish in the river now,” said an old timer passing by on a motorized wheelchair. I was sitting on the cement wall, stradling the ledge, one leg dangling, reading Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, the river’s caressing lullaby in my ear, like a thousand simultaneous hisses. “Yeah, that river, boy oh boy, a man used to be able to fish up and down it an’ slay the fish. Ain’t been the same since the flood. See that sandy spot on the bank over there on the other side? You can catch some mighty fine musky right there at daylight and an hour before the sun goes down.
“I am a master manipulator.”
“I know,” I said, “I keep that in mind.” I looked at his tattoo again. Remembered when we met. I don’t tell him how I knew.
We talked about what motivates people, capitalism, money.
“Even when I had everything I wanted, I wasn’t happy. Money didn’t make me happy,” he said.
“I wasn’t happy when I had more money in my life, either.”
“But everything revolves around money. I mean, really, can you do what you want in life without money?”
“That sounds like a trick question. I don’t know how to answer.”
He chuckled. “What do you mean? What do you want to do in life? And can you do it without money?”
“My motivation is intrinsic, disconnected from money.”
“Ok, what is it?”
“To love people, especially those who need love the most.”
He didn’t deny me this. Didn’t mock me or joke about it. He just lit another cigarette, started talking about Naruto.
The last bit of sunlight dissipates, leaving the Elk to glimmer and shine with glassy waves of blue, pink, green, white, and red lights, reflections from businesses and street lamps from across the other side. The reflections remind me of Van Gogh swirls, dreamy and illusory. The air is chilly now, with a hint of magic. The lull of the river is intoxicating. We lean into quietness, tranquilized by the coolness of dusk. We study the other side. Directly across from us is a small building with large white circle bulbs. People come and go.
“What do you think that place is?” he asks.
“An ice cream shop,” I giggle. He shakes his head. I can’t see his tattoo, but I know it’s there. It’s time to leave.
Kandi Workman is a creative nonfiction writer and poet from deep in the heart of the Southern Coal Fields of West Virginia. She earned a B.A. in English Literature, Technical Writing, and Professional Writing at West Virginia State University in 2015. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Creative Nonfiction in the West Virginia Wesleyan College Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts Program. She is employed full time with the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts and focuses on grant writing, storytelling, and creative placemaking initiatives in post-coal communities. She is a single mother of three and lives in Boone County, WV.
Judges for the Movable / New Ohio Review Writing Contest were Kelly Michel, Emily Nason, Nick Roberts, Stephanie Rogers, and Jeff Tigchelaar.