Skip to Content

Heat & Light


From some remote part of his brain undestroyed by opiates, he conjures forth her parents’ phone number, where he’d phoned her every day for an entire summer, a lifetime ago.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Edgerton_top.jpg
Harold Edgerton, Bullet Splash, 1940s. Gelatin silver print. From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © MIT, Harold Edgerton, 2014, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc.

The days begin at seven. Beds are made, showers taken, breakfasts eaten. It is, arguably, the most useful part of the program, the dumb animal normality of living in daytime, sleeping at night. For years Darren has kept junkie’s hours, nodding off at nine a.m., at midday, at dusk.

After breakfast, meds are given. Men file in and out of the nurse’s office, where the magic Jell-O shooters are dispensed. In light of his last, spectacular failure, Darren is not invited to the party. He is given a multivitamin and a cup of herbal tea that smells like socks.

He takes a small, sad pride in his bedmaking.

The tea is made from milk thistle, an ambitious herb that is going to detoxify his liver, or at least try.

Fortified with sock tea, he attends his morning group, which is called Steps. This to distinguish it from the afternoon group, which is called Group.

At Steps, twenty guys work the program. They admit they are powerless over drugs, that their lives have become unmanageable, that a Power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity. They turn their lives over to the care of said.

You might find this hard to do, if you’ve ever considered yourself powerful. If you’re Darren Devlin—as, regrettably, he is—this is not a problem. The first three steps are easy enough.

Step Four is the searching and fearless moral inventory, which is where the trouble begins.

This time around, Darren has a head start. His last time in rehab—two short-long years ago—he’d made it all the way to Step Eight: We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Willingness was not the problem. He was willing enough.

Willingness was not the problem. He was willing enough. The problem was the list itself, which included every person he had interacted with since the age of fourteen. The list contained multitudes. The day after he completed his searching and fearless moral inventory, he walked out the front door, caught the #12 bus at the bottom the hill, rode sixteen blocks, and wandered the neighborhood until he ran into Nelson.

Faced with such a list, an unending litany of shames and failures, anyone—anyone—would want to get high.

Nelson was his best friend, an old junkie. How old exactly, and whether Nelson was his first or last name, Darren never knew. With a few notable interruptions—hospitals, prison—Nelson had been fixing since the ’70s, the golden age of Baltimore heroin. When the supply dried up in the ’80s, he’d actually gone to live in Afghanistan, where his colossal habit could be maintained for pocket change. Before the terrorists and American soldiers had ruined everything, Kabul had been the junkie’s Mecca, his Medina, his Lourdes. Someday, when the bullets stopped flying, Nelson and Darren would travel there together.

Afghanistan was Darren’s exit strategy, his plan for the future. High, he’d been impressed by his own foresight.

There was power in having a plan.

*                      *                     *

The names on his earlier list carry forward like a bad debt.

His senior year in high school, the Bakerton Rotary Club had awarded Darren a small grant, called the Hope Scholarship. Placed in context of a massive tuition bill from Johns Hopkins, it was more than nothing, but only a little more.

The Rotarians were big on ceremony. They presented the award at a special banquet. Darren was called to the stage and handed a giant replica of his thousand-dollar check, printed on poster board.

The Hope Scholarship existed because of his father. Years earlier, when Darren was still in junior high, Dick Devlin sold his fellow Rotarians on the idea of funding a scholarship in the sciences. I was thinking ahead, he admitted to Darren later. I thought it might come in handy for you someday.

For years, Dick had been laying groundwork, so that Darren could receive the Hope scholarship. It is—well, sobering—to think.

Arnold Wu had been his first lab partner in Organic Chemistry—a shy, serious kid from southern California who shattered all Darren’s preconceptions about that place. Their first experiment involved re-crystallization. They’d written the report together, an all-nighter fueled by Red Bull and two Adderalls Darren had bought from a guy in his dorm.

The second week’s experiment involved melting points. Darren had been late for class, but Arnold had started without him. He’d given Darren his notes to copy, the calculations written in mechanical pencil, Arnold’s careful hand.

His second lab partner in Organic Chemistry was Holly Gillman and this was much, much worse, because Holly Gillman had loved him.

The third week’s experiment, Darren can’t remember. Whether he’d gone to class high, or had gone only in his imagination, was impossible to say.

O-Chem was a weed-out class. By second semester, the class had shrunk by a third. Thanks entirely to Arnold Wu, Darren was not weeded out. His second lab partner in Organic Chemistry was Holly Gillman and this was much, much worse, because Holly Gillman had loved him.

She was not a pretty girl, for what that mattered. As Leah Radulski had in high school, Holly chose him for her own inscrutable reasons.

At the end of freshman year, he was invited back to the Rotarians’s banquet to give a speech on his experience at Hopkins. Darren promised to attend. He’d had every intention of going. He had even borrowed Holly’s car.

His academic advisor at that time was a woman named Greta Schenkel. That summer, she paid him—generously—to housesit and watch her cat while she visited her parents in Stuttgart. For an entire month, he enjoyed the professor’s stereo and projection TV, usually with total strangers—people who’d given or sold him dope, or promised to.

One night he returned to Greta Schenkel’s and found a smashed window. He never got around to reporting the robbery. That night—that entire summer—he was in no shape to deal with cops. He called Nelson instead.

When he crashed Holly’s car he had called her in a panic. There were no witnesses to the accident. He convinced her to tell the police that she, not Darren, had been driving.

He slept with her because it made her easier to deal with.

He still owes Holly Gillman several thousand dollars. More, possibly. He has no idea—he’s never asked—what she pays for car insurance.

He is not entirely sure when the cat ran away.

The stories are numberless.

*                      *                     *

The schedule sets aside two hours for phone calls. From eleven to noon is Phone Out. From five to six p.m. is Phone In.

Twice a day Darren stations himself at an actual pay phone, the kind that used to exist in the world and now is found only in rehab, where cell phones—with their treasure troves of stored numbers, the suppliers on speed dial—are not allowed.

He starts small. All things considered, he doesn’t feel too bad about Arnold Wu, who’d requested, and was assigned, another lab partner. Arnold, at least, had the stones to save himself.

Now a post-doc at MIT, he doesn’t at first, and possibly not even later, remember who Darren is.

“Oh, Darren,” he says finally, in a parody of remembering. “How are you, man?”

As though the words I’m in heroin rehab don’t answer that question.

“No sweat,” he says, when Darren explains his reason for calling.

“Actually—this is kind of funny—my lab partner after you? You remember Wendy?”

Darren thinks, Did Wendy sell smack? No? Sorry, I don’t remember.

“We’re married now. With a baby on the way. So I guess I should be thanking you.”

You’re welcome, Darren thinks as he hangs up. I’m so glad my addiction has worked out for you.

Greta Schenkel no longer teaches at Johns Hopkins. Possibly she went back to Germany, says the indifferent graduate student who answers the phone.

Gia Bernardi’s cell phone number is stored in his own cell phone, which had been confiscated at Intake. From some remote part of his brain undestroyed by opiates, he conjures forth her parents’ phone number, where he’d phoned her every day for an entire summer, a lifetime ago.

Darren remembers clearly the first time they got high. Without him, she would never have picked up a joint. Of this, he is utterly sure.

Rocco is winded, a little wheezy. He sounds very old. “Hang on,” he rasps. “I’ll get her.”

“Hello?” says Gia. “Hello?’

Darren remembers clearly the first time they got high. Without him, she would never have picked up a joint. Of this, he is utterly sure.

He hangs up the phone.

The first time he calls Holly Gillman, she hangs up on him. The second time she weeps. The third time she hangs up again. None of this is the actual problem.

The problem is that he can’t call his mom.

*                      *                     *

The next day he tries again. This time, Gia herself answers. His contrition seems to amuse her.

“Sorry for what? We had fucking blast that summer. Anyways,” says Gia.

And just like that, she changes the subject. About Darren’s Eighth Step—his moral imperative to make amends, his paralyzing guilt and shame—she has nothing to say.

“You doing good?” she asks. “What do you do for fun in there?”

“Fun is discouraged.”

“I was really sorry to hear about your mom.”

The words cause him physical pain.

“It was a beautiful service. Stoner did a great job. Even Rocco said so, and he’s critical.”

The pain lodged in his throat like something that could choke him.

“She looked good. She was pretty banged up, you know, but they covered everything.”

Darren swallows very deliberately, searching and fearless.

“They tried so hard to find you. Your dad even called me. He thought I’d know how to reach you. I tried your cell, but it wouldn’t let me leave a message. The mailbox was full.”

Darren had been, at the time, unfindable. This was no accident. This was completely by design.

They tried for days to find him. He learned, some months later, that his brother Rich had come to Baltimore to track him down. He was seen lurking around the old apartment in Charles Village, a big blond guy who looked like a cop. Darren was by then locked out of his apartment. He heard the rumor third-hand from Gary Beasom, who lived in the building and had sold Darren on several occasions his shitty homegrown weed. They’re watching you, man, said Gary, a conclusion Darren recognized as pot smoker’s paranoia but did not dispute. It was in some way flattering, that he was important enough to be watched by cops. It never occurred to him that his brother would come looking for him, or why.

That spring, like every spring, Sally’s daffodils would bloom before the snow melted.

The family postponed the funeral as long as possible. Finally, the day before Christmas, they put his mother in the ground.

G

Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh will be on sale in May.

Author Image

Jennifer Haigh is the author of the short story collection, News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories, and four critically acclaimed novels: Faith, The Condition, Baker Towers, and Mrs. Kimble. Her books have won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Massachusetts Book Award and the PEN New England Award in Fiction. Her short stories have been published in the Atlantic, Granta, The Best American Short Stories Guernica, and many other places. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and now lives in Boston. Author photograph credit: Rob Arnold.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

You might also like

  • Trying to Get RightTrying to Get Right The breakthrough addiction medication and the doctors who risk everything to prescribe it.
  • StormbringerStormbringer I met Tracy Pasco in the spring of 1980—in my Pennsylvania hometown, a time of relative optimism and ease.
  • The Tail of My HeartThe Tail of My Heart You are not going out, he said. You haven’t been out for weeks. People have been in touch with you, he said. Why don’t you see them?
  • Our Lady of ZeitounOur Lady of Zeitoun Firas rested his head on the back of the sofa, lost in the smoke. He wondered what that meant: a world where you can run wild.

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting