You don’t quit cocaine; you only borrow time away from it. The skinny girl’s head hurt, again, reminding her, as it did most days, that it needed its old friend. Just enough to stop the pounding and feel normal, think about something clearly and simply without the fog that always seemed to be there without the clarity of the drug.
She wondered if it would ever get better. The drug counselor—back when the state still paid for her counselor—had told her that it was more than coke that made her head throb and everything move in a fog. Years of being knocked around, things she couldn’t even remember, and things she didn’t want to remember. Maybe it was just the way she was.
The counselors had shrugged at the hopeless case and given her a succession of palliatives. They came with prescriptions but, really, they were just coke-in-a-pill with fancy names. Not even as good as coke: they only made the fog feel like a happy place. Getting over the legal drugs was harder than getting over any of the illegal drugs. A long time since she had done either, and she still felt the craving every day.
Her head hurt worse when she tried to think of what to do. She wished she were smart enough to find the answers. She cried for the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, couldn’t watch it with other people because she would bawl like a dying calf whenever Ray Bolger would sing, “If I Only Had a Brain.”
So she would watch it at home, alone in her small apartment, after everything in the two rooms was meticulously cleaned and arranged in the way that felt comforting to her.
She would sit on the couch and fall in love with Dorothy and identify with the little girl who just wanted to go somewhere where the colors were clear and bright. She would sit on the edge and root for Dorothy until the line of “If I Only Had a Brain” would dissolve her into tears. By the end, by the time everything had been made right by the wizard’s impotent and empty words, she would forget why she was watching.
If she only had a brain. Something told her that she had once had one, had been smart and successful until bad choices and bad luck and bad people had taken it away. Sometimes, when the headache teased her by disappearing for a while, she would do something smart, or something that felt smart. The people who had been laughing at her would stop and look at her oddly for a minute before they would laugh her back into silly submission.
Except at the Western World Bar where she hung out. Mayor, the owner, had never laughed at her. Not even at the end of the coke days when she was still using and would dance on the tables for tips to get money for the man on the corner. Mostly, Mayor watched sports reruns on the old black-and-white TV behind the bar. But, occasionally, he would stare at her with such heart-breaking sadness that she wished things could be different, if only for him.
So she spent most of her days there, even after the coke and the drinking had stopped. Most of the time, it was just her and Mayor and the guy who lived in the back broom closet sitting all day without speaking. The guy from the back used to be somebody. She was sure of it, even though she couldn’t remember why. Josh, that was his name. When he was sober. When he was drunk, he pretended to be every character you could imagine. Anything but Josh.
But the characters Josh made up were smart, and the skinny girl could see that Josh was smart. One day she’d said it, the only words she’d said that day. Josh was doing some old comedy bit about a poor immigrant who was improbably an astronaut and quietly terrified about the prospect of sitting in a capsule on top of a giant firecracker. She had laughed and then said it: “I wish I were smart.” Josh had stopped in mid-joke, dragged himself back to his closet and didn’t come out until closing time.
The next day Josh left the bar for a while. When he came back, he had a beat-up book in his hands.
“Here,” he said. “Smart people read books.”
She looked at the book like it was a foreign object. A happy pair of kids and a happy dog on the cover. A children’s book. She opened it tentatively and read the first three-word sentence.
“See Spot Run.” She looked at Josh. “What does it mean?”
Josh shrugged. “You have to keep reading until you figure it out. Keep reading each sentence until it makes sense.”